New USDA policy will reject some salmonella-contaminated poultry products

Dive Brief:

  • The USDA will start testing for salmonella in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products, and will not allow them to be sold if they are found to be contaminated by significant amounts of the bacteria, the department announced on Monday. Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety, said the decision is “just the beginning of our efforts to improve public health.” 
  • The USDA also plans to present a framework for a comprehensive strategy to reduce salmonella illnesses from poultry in October, and will have a public meeting about it in November.
  • Because of the way salmonella had been classified, USDA inspectors could not previously reject a chicken product contaminated with the pathogen. This new decision has come out of a USDA initiative introduced last October to reduce the number of salmonella-related illnesses by 25%.

Dive Insight:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, there are 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the United States attributable to salmonella. Most of these cases come from eating contaminated food. The CDC has estimated nearly a quarter of these infections are caused by chicken and turkey consumption. According to Monday’s statement, salmonella infections from breaded and raw chicken products have caused up to 14 outbreaks and 200 illnesses since 1998.

The bacteria often causes stomach cramping, diarrhea and fever, though it can lead to more serious complications. Illnesses caused by salmonella can be long lasting and expensive to treat.

Even though salmonella-related illnesses have been a serious problem in food for some time, there has been little that the USDA could do about it. The interpretation of the law required the USDA to name specific bacteria as contaminants — “adulterants” in regulatory parlance — in order to require testing for them and for products containing the bacteria to be rejected.

Both Listeria and E. coli have been considered contaminants on meat products for years, but not salmonella. In fact, federal courts have ruled that salmonella is not automatically something that can be considered a contaminant because the bacteria is killed when meat is cooked, and its mere presence does not indicate that the facility where the meat was processed was contaminated.

The consumer-led fight to stop salmonella-contaminated meat from being sold has raged for years. Two years ago, food safety attorney Bill Marler petitioned the USDA and asked that 31 different salmonella strains be declared contaminants. And in 2018, the Consumer Federation of America published a report about the dangers of salmonella and problems with the legal reasoning that the bacteria is eliminated when meat is cooked.

It seems that under the Biden administration, these consumers could get what they want. In the USDA statement last October announcing the new focus on cutting down on salmonella, Eskin said, “Time has shown that our current policies are not moving us closer to our public health goal. It’s time to rethink our approach.”

Consumer Federation of America’s director of food policy Thomas Gremillion praised the USDA’s approach in a written statement.

“This announcement represents a sea change in how poultry is inspected in the United States,” he said. “Rather than certifying a poultry processing establishment’s safety, FSIS will now certify the safety of each poultry product itself. And that’s what matters to consumers.”

But the National Chicken Council, which is a policy-focused trade association, argued in a written statement that the chicken industry has spent the last several years working to improve its internal practices — and investing millions in controls — to reduce salmonella-related illnesses.

“NCC is concerned about the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy, made without supporting data, for a product category that has been associated with a single outbreak since 2015,” said Ashley Peterson, the group’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “It has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves.”

This is not the federal government’s final word on salmonella. A more comprehensive framework — potentially including all poultry — will be released in a few months. Also, Monday’s notice said, the USDA will seek public comments about whether a different standard — like a zero-tolerance policy for salmonella or one defined by different serotypes — would be more appropriate.