New poultry safety standards may prevent 50,000 annual illnesses, USDA says

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2016 - New safety standards for chicken and turkey products set by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will help to prevent an estimated 50,000 illnesses a year, FSIS says.

The new regulations, announced today, specifically target Salmonella and Campylobacter and extend to ground chicken and turkey as well as chicken parts like wings, legs, and breasts. Under the new regime, Salmonella performance standards will drop to 15.4 percent of positive detections for chicken parts, 25 percent for ground chicken, and 13.5 percent for ground turkey.

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Campylobacter standards are now even lower. Only 7.7 percent of tests may come back positive in chicken parts, and the figure drops to 1.9 percent for ground chicken and turkey. Samples at processing facilities will be taken once a week every week, a change from the previous inspection process that tested over a period of 52 consecutive days.

In a statement, Al Almanza, USDA's deputy under secretary for food safety, said the new approach is “based on science, supported by strong data, and will truly improve public health.

"The new performance standards will complement the many other proactive, prevention-based food policies that we've put in place in recent years to make America's supply of meat and poultry safer to eat,” he said.

Information will be posted online about how processing plants are doing in meeting the standards based on three-category system. Category 1 plants will symbolize those facilities actually exceeding the standards; Category 2 will be those plants that meet or “slightly exceed” the standards; Category 3 plants will show those that are failing. Previously, only results from Category 3 plants were disclosed, but USDA is trying to incentivize plants to be in the highest performing category.

In a joint release, two food safety advocates in the House of Representatives -- Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. -- agreed that the new standards are an improvement, but they said they want to see more from USDA. DeLauro said USDA should declare salmonella as an adulterant -- making it eligible for government recalls - saying that the new standards on their own are “not enough to keep American consumers safe.”

“We can more effectively respond and prevent these outbreaks, but the USDA must do more,” she said. “American consumers deserve it.”

Slaughter said under the new rules, “the public's health is still at risk” because the performance standards aren't tough enough.

“Salmonella and Campylobacter are known disease-causing bacteria, and the new rule guarantees they will continue to be present in processed chicken and turkey products,” Slaughter said. She pointed to USDA estimates attributing 360,000 illnesses to products already subject to the department's regulations, “and while this rule reduces those numbers, we should not be satisfied until we bring these preventable illnesses down to zero.”

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Lisa Wallenda Picard, the National Turkey Federation's vice president for science and regulatory affairs, didn't seem fazed by the new standards. In a statement, she said turkey companies “are continually modernizing protections that inhibit bacteria during meat preparation, portioning and packaging.”

National Chicken Council's Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Ashley Peterson said that NCC members “have been collectively exploring all options to reduce contamination on chicken parts.” She said “when the performance standards for chicken parts are put in place by FSIS, we will be meeting or exceeding the standards, as we do for whole carcasses." 

 

FSIS has had regulations in place for whole chickens since 1996, but has learned that levels increase as chicken is further processed. According to USDA, poultry parts represent 80 percent of the chicken available for purchase in America.

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