DES MOINES, Iowa — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday proposed sweeping changes to the way chicken and turkey meat is processed, which are intended to reduce illnesses from food contamination but could force meat companies to make significant changes to their operations.
Despite decades of efforts to reduce illnesses caused by salmonella in food, more than 1 million people get sick each year, and nearly a quarter of those cases come from turkey and chicken meat.
As it stands, consumers bear much of the responsibility for preventing disease from raw poultry by handling it gently in the kitchen – following the usual advice not to wash raw chicken or turkey (it spreads the bacteria), and separate kitchen utensils to use when preparing meat and cooking up to 165 degrees. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to address that by starting with the farmers who raise the birds and tracking the processing plant where the meat is made.
Their food poisoning target: Of the more than 2,500 salmonella serotypes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified three that cause a third of all human illness from chicken and turkey products. The agency proposes to limit its presence on poultry products.
In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step by declaring some strains of E. coli a contaminant in ground beef and establishing a testing program for the pathogen that has significantly reduced meat-borne disease.
In an effort to contain salmonella outbreaks in poultry, the agency is proposing a regulatory framework that would include testing incoming flocks of chickens and turkeys for the bacterial disease that commonly affects the intestinal tract and affects 1.3 million people annually. with symptoms that may include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that may last for several days. Officials hope that testing chickens and turkeys before entering the slaughterhouse will encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce the bacterial infection on the bird before they reach the point of meat processing.
A second measure would require improved monitoring of Salmonella during processing by sampling the bacteria at multiple stages within the processing facility. The third big change would be to establish a maximum tolerable level of bacterial contamination and potentially limit the three specific types of salmonella that can make people sick. Meat that would exceed the limits or contain the banned types of salmonella could be withdrawn from the market.
The FSIS will begin a lengthy process of proposing new rules by holding a public hearing on November 3 to get input from the poultry industry and others. The government’s goal is to come up with new rules and regulations that can be rolled out early next year and completed within two years.
The agency said it is taking time to roll out these ideas and get input before hard rules are set. The agency hopes to begin regulation by mid-2023 and complete it within two years, said Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety.
“We know this is quite a pivot of where the agency has been in the past and for that reason we try to be as transparent and deliberate and collaborative as possible,” Eskin said.
Consumer advocates have been calling for such action on poultry products for years. Eskin said the administration of President Joe Biden is pushing for the changes to be made.
Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, one of the nation’s foremost attorneys to represent consumers sick from food sources, applauded the agency’s move, which recognizes controlling salmonella on animals before they reach processing plants is crucial to reduce meat contamination. He said FSIS has to be brutal and that salmonella is a cutting agent – a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness – in all meats as a starting point.
“What they’ve outlined is something that’s really unique that they’ve never done before, but it doesn’t have a timeline and there’s no precepts attached to it that would show it will actually be accomplished. That’s my criticism,” he said. .
The industry has failed to meet government targets for reducing foodborne salmonella infections for a few decades. Meeting the new 2030 target of 11.5 infections per 100,000 people per year would require a 25% reduction, Eskin said.
Eskin said the industry has managed to reduce the number of salmonella-contaminated chicken samples by 50% between 2017 and 2021, but the number of salmonella diseases has not decreased significantly over the past two decades. More than 23% of foodborne salmonella diseases are attributable to poultry consumption, with nearly 17% coming from chicken meat and more than 6% from turkey meat.
The North American Meat Institute, the trade association representing U.S. packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey, said fighting salmonella is a high priority.
“We are encouraged to see FSIS go through the regular regulatory process. We look forward to reviewing the proposal and providing industry commentary,” said Julie Anna Potts, the group’s president and CEO.
A spokeswoman for the National Chicken Council, which represents the companies that raise and process chickens for meat, said they support efforts to reduce salmonella on chicken products.
“We are concerned that the proposed framework currently lacks industry input, research and data to back it up,” said Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the group.
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