USDA lists steps to improve poultry, ground beef safety

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced steps on two different fronts to curb foodborne illnesses, one involving updated guidance to help the poultry industry reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, and the other a final rule that will help track the source of ground beef in outbreak investigations.

The proposed raw poultry guidance, announced on Dec 11 by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection (FSIS), is the fourth edition of the guidance and is based on lessons learned from outbreaks over the past few years. The ground beef action is a finalized rule, also based on lessons from earlier outbreaks, the FSIS said in a statement today.

Poultry pathogen guidance

The draft guidance for poultry producers is the USDA's first since 2010 and covers science-based interventions for limiting Salmonella and Campylobacter at all steps in poultry production, from farm through processing.

The USDA said that although the number of foodborne illnesses has been declining over the past century, Salmonella levels have remained stagnant, requiring an "all hands on deck" approach to drive down the contamination levels in meal and poultry products. It said the guidance is one part of its Salmonella Action Plan. Earlier this year the FSIS unveiled new performance standards for raw chicken breasts, legs, and wings, along with that for comminuted chicken and turkey products.

Since its last guidance, several outbreaks have been linked to raw poultry products, including one in 2011 involving ground turkey products that sickened 148 people, two outbreaks linked to chicken parts that totaled more than 700 Salmonella infections, and four outbreaks from 2013 to 2015 that involved raw stuffed chicken products.

Al Almanza, the USDA's undersecretary from food safety, said in a press release, "This new guide is one piece of FSIS' Salmonella Action Plan and our effort to reduce Salmonella illnesses attributed to meat and poultry products by 25 percent in order to meet the nation's Healthy People 2020 goals. By following the newer guidelines, poultry facilities can help us reach this important public health target."

The 109-page document covers all the steps of poultry production from preharvest to slaughter and processing. It pinpoints problem areas and outlines best practices. For example, the guidance points out several stages during production at which organic material can build up, which can pose a cross-contamination threat. The report also offers steps to counter the contamination, such as plastic sleeves for employees handling the carcasses and ample water and washing stations for cleaning knives.

The USDA is asking the public to comment on the guidelines, with comments due by Feb 16, 2016. The public can submit comments online through the Federal Register portal.

Final ground beef rule

In another food safety development, the FSIS today announced a finalized rule that requires all makers of raw ground beef to keep adequate records of source material, so the agency can quickly find the contaminated source during the trace-back part of outbreak investigations.

Retail stores sometimes produce ground beef by mixing products from various sources, and in the past, problems with recordkeeping have made it difficult for investigators to pinpoint the contamination. For example, FSIS said that a 2011 Salmonella outbreak in Maine and other parts of the Northeast would have resulted in fewer illnesses if the involved establishments would have kept detailed records.

In a press release today, the FSIS said the new rule complements a plan it launched in August 2014 to speed tracing of tainted ground beef by launching investigations at grinding facilities and suppliers as soon as initial tests are positive for Escherichia coli O157.

Almanza said in today's statement, "This is a common-sense step that can prevent foodborne illness and increase consumer confidence when they purchase ground beef."

The new final rule stipulates that all facilities and stores that grind raw beef product keep records on the establishment numbers of the suppliers, including lot numbers, production dates, supplied materials, carry-over materials, time and date of grinding, and time and date of equipment cleaning and sanitation.

The FSIS first proposed the rule in July 2014, and the final rule it announced today accounts for public comments it received.

See also:

Dec 11 Draft FSIS compliance guideline for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter in raw poultry

Dec 11 FSIS press release on poultry

Dec 11 Federal Register notice

Dec 14 FSIS press release on ground beef

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