USDA proposes new pathogen-reduction plan

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture is proposing tougher standards for pathogen reduction in raw chicken parts and not-ready-to-eat comminuted chicken and turkey products.

FSIS announced federal standards to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in ground chicken, chicken legs, breasts and wings, and turkey products. Proposed standards would achieve a 30 percent reduction in illnesses caused by Salmonella. For chicken parts, ground chicken, and ground turkey, FSIS is proposing a pathogen reduction performance standard designed to reduce illness from Campylobacter by at least 19 percent and as much as 37 percent.

Additionally, FSIS plans to use routine sampling throughout the year rather than infrequently sampling on consecutive days to assess processors' effectiveness at addressing Salmonella and, where applicable, Campylobacter on poultry carcasses and other products derived from poultry carcasses.

“These new standards, as well as improved testing patterns, will have a major impact on public health,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. “The proposed changes are another way we're working to meet the ever-changing food safety landscape and better protect Americans from foodborne illness.”

Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council, said food safety is a top priority for chicken processors, and noted the industry's track record of producing safe products.

For example, the most recent FSIS Quarterly Progress Report showed that for the first quarter of 2008 through the first quarter of 2014, the industry reduced the occurrence of Salmonella on whole chickens by 63 percent. Also, the industry has reduced the incidence of Campylobacter by 30 percent since FSIS began testing chicken for Campylobacter in 2011.

“Even though we’ve collectively made tremendous progress in reducing Salmonella on raw chicken to all-time low levels, the fact is any raw agricultural product, whether its fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria that could make someone sick if improperly handled or cooked,” Peterson said in a statement. “Our members are investing heavily in food safety research and are using the best science, research and technology available to break the chain of Salmonella at every stage of production. Coupled with continuous USDA inspection and proper handling and cooking to 165°F, chicken is safe to eat 100-percent of the time.”

In 1996, FSIS implemented performance standards for whole chickens. However, the agency has learned since then that Salmonella levels increase as chicken is processed into parts. By making standards for ground poultry tougher to meet, FSIS reasoned, ground poultry products nationwide will have less contamination resulting in fewer foodborne illnesses. The proposed standards for chicken parts combined with testing closer to the final product can greatly reduce consumer exposure to Campylobacter and Salmonella, FSIS said, adding that poultry parts account for 80 percent of the chicken available to consumers.

“Today, we are taking specific aim at making the poultry items that Americans most often purchase safer to eat,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This is a meaningful, targeted step that could prevent tens of thousands of illnesses each year.”

Peterson said that NCC and its members also have been exploring options to reduce contamination on chicken parts. She said strategies include strengthened sanitation programs, temperature controls and various interventions in chicken processing.

“This is something the industry has been proactively working to address, so when the performance standards for chicken parts are put in place by FSIS, we will be meeting or exceeding the standards, as we currently do for whole carcasses,” Peterson said.

FSIS has opened a 60-day comment period. The agency plans to announce final standards and an implementation date in the spring. More information is available in the Federal Register notice.
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