KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Stakeholders stepped up to defend the safety of US meat and poultry products after a report critical of the hygiene in US meat plants was published in the United Kingdom.
A joint report by the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian newspaper raised concerns that “…dirty US meat could flood into Britain…” as a result of a post-Brexit US-UK trade agreement that weakens food safety standards in the UK. The report, according to the news organizations, is based on unpublished reports by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Dept. of Agriculture. The article said more than 15,000 non-compliance violations at 13 large red meat and poultry plants were reported between 2015 and 2017.
Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), said meat processing plants are regulated and inspected intensively by federal inspectors. Violations are well-documented when they occur.
“The Guardian cherry-picks quotes that sound the most compelling while failing to compare and quote similar documents generated by UK’s own Food Standards Agency,” Carpenter said. “The fact the incidents described by The Guardian were found by government inspectors and that the products involved never entered commerce shows that the US inspection system is working effectively.”
The report also said that separate government documents revealed hygiene “failings” between 2014 and 2016 at 24 poultry plants operated by Greeley, Colorado-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., which is owned by JBS S.A.
In a statement, Al Almanza, JBS Global Head of Food Safety and Quality Assurance, attempted provide context for the non-compliance citations used in the report. Almanza joined JBS after serving as Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, USDA, and Administrator of FSIS.
“The US meat and poultry sector is one of the most highly regulated industries in America. Non-compliance reports are issued by USDA inspection personnel to document when an establishment has not met a specific regulatory requirement,” Almanza said. “However, the vast majority of non-compliance issues are addressed immediately and have no impact on food safety.
“All of the documented incidents regarding JBS and Pilgrim’s were immediately addressed by our facilities,” he noted. “None of these incidents put anyone at risk or resulted in any adulterated product released into commerce. Food safety is achieved by implementing processes that consistently detect and correct issues before products are released into commerce. Our team at JBS and Pilgrim’s is committed to the highest food safety standards and we partner with USDA each and every day to ensure that consumers can enjoy safe and quality products with confidence.”
The report went on to compare trends in foodborne illnesses in the US and UK. But, it is unclear from the report if the illnesses in the UK were linked to US meat and poultry products. Additionally, the report gave graphic details of violations, but few details about possible outcomes or remedies implemented by the plants. It also is unclear whether the reporters visited the facilities cited in the documents used to generate the report.
“The US meat and poultry production and inspection system is well regarded for its efficiency and ability to produce a meat and poultry supply that is among the safest, and certainly the most affordable in the world,” Carpenter added. “The Guardian claimed that an estimated 15 percent of Americans experience a foodborne illness each year. However, The Guardian failed to note that the number of laboratory confirmed cases of Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes are far higher in the United Kingdom than in the Unites States, and the US has a population that is five times as large as the UK population.”
Concerns that a bilateral trade agreement with the US would lower food safety standards in the UK emerged in 2017 as government officials from both countries began talks on a potential post-Brexit free trade agreement. At the time, food safety advocates abroad were concerned about chicken rinsed in chlorine, which is a food safety intervention that is legal in the US, but not the European Union.
“We believe food safety and trade agreements should be based on sound science, not political science or fear mongering,” said Tom Super of the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C. “US broiler companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in technology and other scientifically validated measures to enhance the safety profile of chicken products. Continuous inspection and testing by FSIS and the industry has demonstrated the long-term success of these interventions in providing a safe, wholesome and affordable protein for consumers, both here at home and in more than 100 countries around the world.”
The “dirty meat” report also stated that chicken with Salmonella can be sold in the US. The federal government has not classified Salmonella as an adulterant like E. coli O157:H7.
“It is ironic that The Guardian criticized the fact that Salmonella is not classified as an adulterant on raw meat and poultry in the US — but omit that that it’s not considered an adulterant in the United Kingdom either,” Carpenter noted. “If The Guardian wants to oppose meat and poultry trade with the US, they should just be honest about it. That facts show that the US and the UK produce meat and poultry that meet high food safety standards and this should encourage trade between our nations and reassure our citizens.”
Super explained that “Even with very low levels of Salmonella, there is still the possibility of illness if a raw product is improperly handled or cooked. But any and all bacteria potentially found on raw chicken are fully destroyed by handling the product properly and cooking it to an internal temperature of 165°F.”