WASHINGTON – The US Dept. of Agriculture can do more to reduce pathogens in meat and poultry products, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a review of USDA’s approach to pathogen reduction.

In its review, GAO examined the extend to which USDA developed standards for pathogen reduction in meat and poultry products and additional steps the agency has taken to address challenges GAO identified in 2014.

The GAO found that while USDA is taking steps to address previously identified issues, some food safety standards need improvement. For example, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of USDA has revised Salmonella standards for chicken and turkey carcasses and for comminuted chicken and turkey but has not revised other Salmonella standards since 1996. Additionally, GAO found that FSIS has not set time frames for determining whether revisions are needed.

The report also documents how USDA developed or updated standards for pathogen reduction in certain products but not others. FSIS developed pathogen standards for beef, pork, chicken and turkey carcasses; select chicken parts such as breasts, thighs and legs; and ground beef, chicken and turkey. In 2011, FSIS developed standard for Campylobacter in chicken and turkey carcasses. By 2016, the agency had developed Salmonella and Campylobacter standards for chicken parts.

“However, the agency has not developed standards for other products that are widely available, such as turkey breasts and pork chops,” GAO said in its review. “Further, its process for deciding which products to consider for new standards is unclear because it is not fully documented, which is not consistent with federal standards for internal control.”

Further, the agency’s process for deciding which products to consider for new standards lacks full documentation and thus is unclear.

“In December 2016, the agency documented a part of its process: who will make the decisions about which products to consider,” GAO wrote. “However, the document does not explain the basis for management’s decisions. FSIS has informed stakeholders that it will take into account factors including consumption and foodborne illness data, as it did when setting standards for chicken parts, but the agency has not documented this process going forward. Several researchers and consumer advocacy representatives we interviewed questioned whether the agency’s process proactively addresses food safety risks.”

As part of the review, GAO made three recommendations:

  • The Administrator of FSIS should document the agency’s process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis on which such decisions should be made.
  • The Administrator of FSIS should set time frames for determining what pathogen standards or additional policies are needed to address pathogens in beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts, and ground pork.
  • The Administrator of FSIS should include available information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices to reduce the level of pathogens as it finalizes its guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs.