The Food Safety and Inspection Service needs to set up a schedule for revising or developing standards for pathogens in certain beef and pork products, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Wednesday.

GAO also said that FSIS needs to fully explain its reasons for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards.

“Until FSIS clearly documents its process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis on which such decisions should be made, FSIS will not have assurance that its decisions will be risk-based and that agency personnel will know the process when making such decisions,” GAO said.

Despite setting standards limiting levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in certain meat and poultry products, FSIS has not established levels for some “widely available” products such as pork chops and turkey breast, GAO said.

FSIS, however, said in its response to GAO – which is included in the report – that after it found a lower rate of pathogens in turkeys than broilers in tests in 2009, it “made a risk-based decision” not to test turkey parts for parts for pathogens or develop performance standards for them.

The service also said that while it agrees on the need for setting timeframes, it is currently assessing the risk from beef and pork products to determine whether to establish new or revised standards – or not set any standards at all.

The National Pork Producers Council issued a statement on the report saying it supports efforts to enhance food safety. 

“The pork industry has engaged with FSIS as it conduct its Raw Pork Products Exploratory Sampling Program and has devoted resources to researching Salmonella interventions for pork processing,” NPPC said. “We will continue to work with FSIS as it evaluates the results of the sampling program and determines next steps to further promote the safety of pork products.”

Food & Water Watch had a different take. “We agree with what GAO found and we’re very concerned that FSIS has not moved in a more expeditious fashion to set new performance standards,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the group’s food campaign.

After the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations, which were designed to help industry identify food safety hazards in plants, were published in 1996, FSIS was supposed to revisit its standards regularly. But “they haven’t kept up with it,” Corbo said.

For example, GAO said that “FSIS has not revised the Salmonella standards for beef and pork carcasses and ground beef since they were first developed in 1996.”

“FSIS officials said that the agency is developing options for how it might move forward and could determine that revised or new standards are not needed and that other policies could suffice in addressing pathogens in beef,” GAO said.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the agency suspended monitoring ground beef under the existing Salmonella standards until it develops a revised standard. “The agency also suspended monitoring whether plants were meeting the pathogen standard for Salmonella on pork carcasses because, according to agency officials, the percentage of pork carcass samples that tested positive for Salmonella was consistently low.”

GAO also urged FSIS to include information in draft guidelines on on-farm hog practices that addresses how effective those measures are in reducing levels of Salmonella in hogs.

“By including available information on the effectiveness of these practices to reduce the level of pathogens as it finalizes its guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs, FSIS would have better assurance that it is keeping industry informed of the potential benefits of adopting on-farm practices and encourage their implementation,” GAO said.

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