USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is proposing to declare salmonella as an adulterant in breaded stuffed raw chicken products, barring their sale if they exceeded a limit for the bacteria. 

The proposed determination would consider a product adulterated if it “tested positive for salmonella at 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram prior to stuffing and breading,” USDA said in a release. The proposal would require sampling and testing the chicken prior to stuffing and breading.  Contaminated products would have to be diverted to different uses. 

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack called the move a “science-based, decisive action to drive down salmonella illnesses linked to poultry products.”

“Today’s proposal represents the first step in a broader effort to control salmonella contamination in all poultry products, as well as a continued commitment to protecting American consumers from foodborne illness,” he added.

The proposal, which USDA offered as a potential regulatory approach in August 2022, would apply to products such as frozen chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev, which appear to be fully cooked due to a pre-browned exterior but include raw chicken. Various ingredients in the stuffing could also cook at different rates, presenting unique food safety challenges for consumers looking to determine an accurate internal temperature to ensure the products are fully cooked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates salmonella is responsible for about 1.35 million human infections and 26,500 hospitalizations every year in the U.S. FSIS says it has investigated 14 salmonella outbreaks and 200 illnesses associated with breaded stuffed raw chicken products since 1998. The most recent outbreak took place in 2021 and caused illnesses in 11 states.

Sarah Sorscher, a director of regulatory affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said the move is "long overdue."

"While this action addresses only a small category of products, it sets an important precedent and serves as a building block in broader efforts to clean up our food supply," she said. "These products are clearly making people sick, and we’ve seen already from similar actions taken in Canada that the industry knows how to produce them without harmful contamination.

"We’re looking forward to reviewing the full proposal, and are also hoping to see food companies step up to meet this new standard, which has the potential to prevent illness and bolster consumer confidence in the food supply," Sorscher added. 

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But National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said the standard set by the proposal is "gravely" concerning for the industry group. 

"This administration has prioritized addressing concerns with food availability and affordability," Brown said in a statement. "This proposal would undermine these goals by driving up food costs, reducing the supply of convenient, nutritious chicken, and forcing lower-income consumers of these products to purchase more expensive alternatives."

Brown also stated NCC's belief that FSIS "already has the regulatory and public health tools to work with the industry to ensure the continued safety of these products."

In October 2022, USDA unveiled its thinking on possible salmonella action in what an official described to Agri-Pulse as a “discussion draft” to outline the agency’s thinking. In that announcement, USDA suggested a three-pronged approach: testing in advance of flocks entering a processing plant, relocating existing sampling procedures in plants, and declaring salmonella as an adulterant.

FSIS will accept comments for 60 days on the proposal; in the rulemaking text, the agency “specifically requests comments on alternative bases for determining adulteration on breaded stuffed (not ready to eat) products.”

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