DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed sweeping changes to the way chicken and turkey meat is processed that aim to reduce illness from food contamination, but could force meat companies to make significant changes to their operations.
Despite decades of effort to try to reduce illnesses caused by Salmonella in food, more than a million people become ill each year and almost a quarter of these cases come from turkey and chicken meat.
As things stand, consumers bear much of the responsibility for avoiding illness from raw poultry by handling it carefully in the kitchen – following the usual advice not to wash chicken or turkey. raw (this spreads bacteria), using separate utensils when preparing meat and cooking. at 165 degrees. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to do something about it by starting with the farmers who raise the birds and tracking the processing plant where the meat is made.
Their food poisoning target: Of more than 2,500 salmonella serotypes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified three that cause one-third of all human illness from chicken and turkey products. The agency proposes to limit the presence of these on poultry products.
The USDA estimates the total annual cost of foodborne Salmonella infections in the United States at $4.1 billion, which includes the cost of doctor and hospital visits, recovery, and premature death. .
In 1994, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step by declaring certain strains of E. coli as a contaminant in ground beef and initiated a testing program for the pathogen that dramatically reduced meat-related illnesses.
In an effort to reduce 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 each year with symptoms which may include diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting which may last for several days. Officials hope that testing chickens and turkeys before they enter the slaughterhouse will encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce bacterial infection on the bird before it reaches the point of processing. meat.
A second measure would require increased monitoring of Salmonella during processing by adopting sampling for bacteria at multiple stages inside the processing facility. The third major change would be to establish a maximum level of bacterial contamination allowed and possibly limit the three specific types of salmonella that can make people sick. Meat that exceeds the limits or contains prohibited types of salmonella could be withdrawn from the market.
The USDA says there are about 3,000 federally inspected plants that slaughter poultry, but about 220 produce the vast majority of poultry products. The agency said it was difficult to say at this stage how many people would be affected by the future regulations.
FSIS will begin a lengthy process of proposing new rules by holding a public hearing Nov. 3 to seek input from the poultry industry and others. The government’s aim is to come up with new rules and regulations that could be rolled out from next year and completed within two years.
The agency said it is taking its time to roll out these ideas and get feedback before establishing firm regulations. The agency hopes to begin rulemaking in mid-2023 and complete it in two years, said Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy assistant secretary for food safety.
“We know this is quite a pivot from where the agency has been historically and for that reason we try to be as transparent, deliberative and collaborative as possible,” Eskin said.
Consumer advocates have been pushing for such action on poultry products for years. Eskin said President Joe Biden’s administration was pushing to make the changes.
Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading advocates for representing consumers sick from food sources, applauded the agency’s action in acknowledging that controlling salmonella on animals before qu they reach processing plants is crucial to reducing meat contamination. He said FSIS should be bold and consider salmonella an adulterant — a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness — in all meats as a starting point.
“What they’ve described is something really unique that they’ve never done before, but there’s no timeline and no attached settlements that would show it’s actually going to be accomplished. This is my criticism,” he said.
The industry has been unable to meet government targets for reducing foodborne salmonella infections for the past 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 succeeded in reducing the number of salmonella-contaminated chicken samples by 50% from 2017 to 2021, but the rate of salmonella illness over the past two decades has not decreased by 50%. significantly. More than 23% of salmonella-related foodborne illnesses are attributable to poultry consumption, with nearly 17% 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 salmonella control efforts were a high priority.
“We are encouraged to see that FSIS is going through the regular regulatory process. We look forward to reviewing the proposal and providing industry feedback,” said Julie Anna Potts, Group President and CEO.
A spokeswoman for the National Chicken Council, which represents companies that raise and process chickens for meat, said she supports efforts to reduce salmonella on chicken products.
“We are concerned that the proposed framework currently lacks industry input, research and data to support it,” said Ashley Peterson, the group’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.