GAO asks USDA to further cut pathogens in meat, poultry

Over the past several years the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken important steps to establish pathogen standards for some meat and poultry, but some commonly consumed products such as turkey breasts and pork chops don't have standards, and it's not clear how the agency decides which products to consider for new standards, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said this week.

The request for the GAO's investigation into the pathogen standards came from members of a Senate committee. Though the US food supply is considered safe, the GAO cited a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that foodborne pathogens cause about 9 million illnesses each year, 2 million of them from Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Standards for some products, not others

In a podcast that accompanied the release of the 49-page report, posted on Apr 18, Steve Morris, the GAO's director of the natural resources and environment, said the USDA pathogen standards are used to reduce contamination in food before the products are sold.

He said the agency began setting standards in 1996, but has so far established them for some products, such as whole chicken, ground chicken, and chicken parts, but not yet for products such as pork chops, ground pork, and turkey breasts. Morris also noted that the pathogen standard for ground beef hasn't been updated in 20 years.

The GAO identified similar challenges in 2014, and the USDA has included information on the effectiveness of steps for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry farms in its guidance, and has similar information in draft guidance for poultry and beef cattle. However, so far there is no information on the effectiveness of the practices in draft guidance for hog producers.

Morris acknowledged that setting the standards isn't an easy task, because it can take several years to fully assess the health risk to consumers. And he noted that it's a challenge to determine how much of a reduction is needed to protect human health, though the USDA is currently collecting information on pathogens in pork, which could form the basis of new standards. And investigators learned that the USDA is analyzing data that could lead to revised standards for beef carcasses and ground beef.

Morris added, however, that the process for deciding which products need standards is unclear and not fully documented, and there are no timelines for determining if updates are needed for existing standards.

In the report summary, GAO investigators wrote, "By documenting the agency's process for deciding which products to consider for new standards, USDA could better ensure that such decisions will be risk-based."

Three main recommendations

To explore pathogen standards, GAO investigators analyzed regulations and documents, interviewed federal officials, and talked to several stakeholders.

The GAO made three recommendations to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS):

  • Documenting the process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards
  • Setting time frames for determining what standards or updates are needed for beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts, and ground pork
  • Including information on effectiveness of on-farm practices in final guidance on controlling Salmonella for hog producers.

The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed a draft of the GAO report, and the USDA agreed with the three recommendations and described steps to address them.

See also:

Apr 18 GAO summary

Apr 18 GAO podcast

Apr 18 GAO report

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