Federal officials will be using a new regulatory regime on some common items found in grocery store freezer aisles.

On Monday, the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it is declaring salmonella as an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products. FSIS says the action will allow it to ensure contaminated products that could make people sick are not sold to consumers. 

Since 1998, there have been 14 outbreaks and 200 illnesses associated with breaded and stuffed raw chicken products, which include frozen poultry products like chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev. Due to product labeling, a USDA release noted these products appear cooked, however, they are only heat-treated to set the batter or breading while the poultry is still raw. 

USDA announced last year it was going to take a closer look at how the department works to control salmonella in raw poultry.

“Our testing has shown reductions in contamination, but there's been no similar reduction in illnesses, which suggests that maybe we're not testing the right way, maybe we're not focused on the salmonella that's making people sick,” Sandra Eskin, USDA's deputy undersecretary for food safety, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. In a release, she said the announcement “is just the beginning of our [USDA’s] efforts to improve public health.”

In a release, FSIS declared improvements to product labeling have been shown not to be effective at reducing consumer illnesses.

Under the new approach, when breaded and stuffed raw chicken products are adulterated or exceed a very low level of Salmonella contamination, it would allow the products to be subject to regulatory action. FSIS will propose to set the limit at 1 colony forming unit (CFU) of Salmonella per gram for these products. The agency will also be seeking public comment on whether a different standard for adulteration should be accepted. 

In early October, FSIS plans to release draft framework of a comprehensive vision for salmonella control in poultry. There will be a public meeting in November to hear from stakeholders; by 2023, FSIS will release a proposed rule.

“There's no guarantee as to how long it may take us to finalize, but we are definitely continuing to push for final rules in the next couple of years,” said Eskin.

“Food safety is at the heart of everything FSIS does,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “That mission will guide us as this important first step launches a broader initiative to reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry in the U.S.”

The National Chicken Council released a statement Monday acknowledging the unique food safety nature of the products in question but expressing some trepidation about USDA's proposed regulatory shift. Ashley Peterson, the group's senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said the group was "concerned about the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy."

"Going back to the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, the mere presence of salmonella has not rendered raw poultry adulterated," she said. "We believe FSIS already has the regulatory and public health tools to work with the industry to ensure the continued safety of these products."

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Peterson also noted the "only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures" throughout the raising, processing, handling and cooking processes. 

“NCC remains confident these products can be prepared and consumed safely, and the industry remains committed to continuing their efforts to further enhance the safety of these products,” she said.

Sarah Sorscher, deputy director for regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement that CSPI welcomes the news but noted the announcement is long overdue. 

“The agency’s failure to develop enforceable standards before now means that dangerously contaminated chicken is routinely stamped ‘USDA inspected’ and placed on store shelves. With today’s announcement, we finally have reason to hope that change is on its way,” said Sorscher. 

Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement education is important in helping consumers learn more about their food products.

"Salmonella is a complex microorganism and more must be done to educate the public and to invest in research and innovations, such as irradiation, to fight it at all points in food supply chain. We are encouraged to see FSIS is providing notice and a comment period to allow the industry to participate in the rulemaking process,” said Potts.

This story has been updated to include CSPI and NAMI statements.

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