Refrigerated case containing packages of raw chicken products
FSIS is working on standards to improve safety of poultry parts.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. introduced new food safety requirements for suppliers of its poultry parts this past December.

It’s probably something USDA should have done quite a while ago. Up to now, there have not been any regulations to control pathogens on poultry product parts or pieces. Instead, the regulation having to do with pathogens apply only to whole chickens, turkeys or other poultry.

But the fact is most poultry sold today is “value-added,” meaning pieces or parts of turkey, chicken or other birds, rather than whole birds. That’s because most consumers today are used to buying chicken tenders, boneless chicken or turkey breasts, or other easy-to-handle poultry pieces for cooking.

Recognizing this gap in food safety, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is announcing new performance standards that will require industry to improve its controlling of pathogens on poultry parts. These tougher government standards will apply to both not-ready-to-eat (NRTE) ground turkey and chicken products, as well as raw chicken and turkey parts and are being implemented this month.

The goal of these increased performance standards is to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in these products. Sickness caused by Salmonella would be reduced by 30 percent as a result of these tougher standards, which would cover chicken wings, legs, breasts, thighs, turkey pieces, and ground chicken and turkey. The goal is to knock down Campylobacter illnesses from 37 to 19 percent applying to chicken and turkey parts, ground turkey and chicken.

And as part of this plan, USDA also will begin exploratory sampling of raw pork products for pathogens that would be of public health concern, as well as indicator organisms showing the possibility of coming pathogens. The agency is planning to use routine sampling of products for pathogens throughout the year, instead of not very frequent sampling on consecutive days to see whether establishment safety processes are effectively addressing Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry carcasses and products coming from these carcasses, including poultry parts and raw ground chicken and turkey.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Department is taking specific aim at making poultry products most Americans buy safer to eat. “This is a meaningful, targeted step that could prevent tens of thousands of illnesses a year,” he said. FSIS Chief Al Almanza said the new standards, as well as improved testing patterns, will have a major impact on public health, and meet the ever-changing food safety landscape. Robert Tauxe MD, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, referred to the food-safety improvement as “getting more germs out of the chicken and turkey we eat.”

Dr. Ashley Peterson, National Chicken Council vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, says the trade association is planning to review the proposed new USDA standards and offer comments about them. From 2008 through 2014, the industry reduced Salmonella on whole chicken by 63 percent. And since USDA began testing for Campylobacter four years ago, the industry has reduced its incidence by 30 percent, she said.

“But we’re working every day to improve. Since the fall of 2013, NCC and our members have been exploring all options to reduce contamination on chicken parts, including strengthened sanitation programs, temperature controls and various interventions in chicken processing. When the new performance standards are put into effect, we will be meeting or exceeding the standards, as we currently do for whole carcasses,” she says.

A pathogen reduction performance standard is the measure FSIS uses to assess the food-safety performance of facilities that prepare meat and poultry products. FSIS implemented performance standards for whole chicken in 1996, but since learned Salmonella levels go up as chicken is further processed into parts. And poultry parts like breasts, wings and other pieces represent 80 percent of the chicken available for Americans to buy.

By creating a standard for parts and performing regulatory testing at a place closer to the final product, FSIS can greatly reduce consumer exposure to Salmonella and Campylobacter.

FSIS is moving ahead to implement these standards during the spring, but is asking right now for comments on its implementation strategy. The agency estimates the new standards will prevent 50,000 illnesses each year.