WASHINGTON – The US meat and poultry industry benefits when products are as safe as they can be, and that’s industry’s goal every day it produces products. Although a report from the University of Florida (UF) is a novel new analysis of food safety, it highlights an area that should be strengthened: industry’s lack of data that clearly identifies which foods cause foodborne illnesses, said American Meat Institute Executive Vice President James Hodges.

“UF researchers note this is a weakness of their report saying, ‘Our results are limited by uncertainties in underlying data, none more so than gaps in our ability to confidently attribute cases of foodborne illnesses to specific foods,’” Hodges added. “Given this lack of clear attribution data, the researchers were forced to make many assumptions about which foods cause various foodborne illnesses and they layer additional assumptions about the costs of those illnesses upon them. It’s difficult to build strong conclusions upon weak assumptions, yet that’s what they were forced to do.”

Hodges relayed that in September 2010, AMI wrote to the Centers for Disease Control urging it to improve their collection of attribution data. “In the letter, we said that better data will help to identify emerging foodborne risks,” Hodges said.

Although the data the UF researchers had to reply upon was imprecise, federal data about the prevalence of bacteria on foods paint a much clearer picture, Hodges continued.

“US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service [FSIS] sampling data tell us that bacteria on many meat and poultry products have declined dramatically – a reassuring fact,” Hodges pointed out.

USDA FSIS data show:

  • From 2000 to the present, E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef declined 70% to one-quarter of 1%.
  • Salmonella on pork has decreased 63% since 2000.
  • Salmonella on raw ground beef has declined 42%.
  • Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat meat products declined by 74% since 2000 to almost one-third of 1% (0.37%).
  • Since 2003, no federal recalls of ready-to-eat meat products have occurred due to listeriosis illnesses.

“We are confident that the strategies we use in our meat and poultry plants are creating an increasingly safe meat and poultry supply,” Hodges said. “We look forward to improved foodborne illness attribution data that will reinforce that and reassure consumers that confidence in the US meat and poultry supply is well-placed.”

Over the years, the presence of potentially pathogenic microorganisms on raw chicken has been greatly reduced, the National Chicken Council said in a statement. Companies continue to invest heavily in improvements that lead to even safer raw products, it added.

Since 1998, the US Department of Agriculture has had microbiological standards in effect. “According to USDA sampling, the microbiological profile of fresh chicken meat is the best that it has ever been,” NCC said. “USDA recently added a standard for Campylobacter to the existing standard for Salmonella, and most processing plants are already meeting both standards. The Florida project acknowledges a lack of outbreak data on Campylobacter and may not have captured improvements made by the industry in processing raw chickens.

“Consumers should continue to follow the simple, common-sense, food-safety precautions printed on every package of raw meat and poultry sold in the US, especially since the heat of normal cooking kills microorganisms such as Salmonella and Campylobacter,” NCC concluded.