The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service believes new performance standards it proposed to lower levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young raw chickens and turkeys will result in 65,000 fewer illnesses each year from these pathogens after the new standards are in place for two years.

The proposal, a key recommendation from President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group, has twin goals of reducing the incidence of food-borne illness and making meat and poultry safer for consumers. The new standards, which USDA hopes will be commented on by industry and consumer groups, academics and others with an interest in food safety, are the first ever proposed by USDA for Campylobacter. For Salmonella, they are the first revision for chicken since 1996, and for turkeys, the first since initial standards were set in 2005.

Salmonella standard
For starters, the President’s FSWG would like to see 90 percent of all poultry-processing establishments achieve the revised Salmonella performance standard by the end of this year. The standards were developed by using recently completed studies measuring the baseline level of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young broiler and turkey carcasses across the U.S. Accompanying the standards is the third version of a compliance guide for poultry slaughter including recommendations for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter. USDA has voiced optimism, predicting half the establishments not meeting the new standards now would do so during the first two years they are im-plemented.

But putting the onus of raw-meat safety completely on the industry, while seemingly absolving consumers of any responsibility for food safety such as properly cooking raw poultry, has raised concerns in the poultry industry. Why is the government concerned about the microbiological profile of raw chicken, for example, if chicken is cooked before it’s eaten by consumers, or should be? “‘When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,’ as the old saying goes,” says Richard Lobb, communications director for the National Chicken Council. “USDA’s biggest weapon against foodborne illness is its Pathogen Reduction program. Faced with a continuing problem with foodborne illness from a wide variety of food sources, USDA’s answer is to focus on the one it is already measuring, Salmonella. Campylobacter is an organism also found on raw chicken, so USDA wants to create a program for that, as well.” Lobb points out the heat of normal cooking destroys the pathogens, however, “As long as we have raw product, consumers will have some level of responsibility for safe handling and cooking,” he adds.

Improving micro profile
Dr. Scott Russell, professor of poultry processing and product microbiology at the Univ. of Georgia, and a science advisor to NCC, says the broiler industry has worked for years to improve the microbiological profile of raw product. “We have the safest poultry products in the world. All we ask are government programs and expectations be guided by sound science, and take place within the proper scope of federal law,” he adds.

Many in the poultry industry think the USDA compliance guide will be helpful to plants, because it is based largely on input from the companies, and because they are experts in the management of live production and in-plant QA, Stephen Pretanik, director of science and tech-nology for NCC, says. Russell points out other issues.

“Industry is concerned about whether the new standards are achievable on a consistent basis,” he says. “Even plants with excellent quality assurance and pathogen reduction programs will sometimes encounter problems beyond their control and will experience levels above the new standards, because microorganisms are natural, not something built into the product.”

Because the two organisms respond differently to a particular intervention, he says, a blanket regulation lowering allowable prevalence for both may be a problem. He notes new standards will not affect the level of sanitation necessary in plants.

European comparison
For years, the American poultry industry has faced criticism that its Salmonella and Campylobacter numbers are higher than European companies. But Russell says the opposite is true. “Statistics show the U.S. industry does a better job of controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on raw product than the European industry does. According to a report from the European Food Safety Authority, 70 percent of broilers coming into plants in Europe have Campylobacter on them, about the same as U.S. plants.” After processing, more than 70 percent of chicken carcasses in Europe still carry it, compared to only about 10 percent in U.S. plants. “The U.S. does a much better job,” says Russell.

He says in the U.S., only five percent of broiler carcasses have Salmonella on them after processing, but in Europe 15 percent have Salmonella on them. The data show U.S. plants do a superior job in controlling microbiological contamination on raw chickens, Russell says.

While FSIS wants to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chicken and turkeys in processing plants, Lobb says the public understands raw poultry may have microorganisms on it and should be cooked before it is eaten. “We think the government is taking its program to an unreasonable extreme,” he says.

Dr. Russell says performance standards should be based on reasonable and practically achievable expectations, and industry believes the proposed standards are unreasonable, because they could be met most of the time but not all of the time. One reason, the industry says, is because the new 7.5 percent standard does not take into account seasonal variability in Salmonella prevalence.

Concerning the new pre-harvest recommendations as part of the guidelines, Pretanik says certain things can be done on the farm by growers. But Salmonella and Campylobacter are naturally occurring phenomena not easily controlled in live animals, and there is a lack of effective strategies for controlling Campylobacter in live broilers.