Almost two years ago, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced a plan to help poultry processors take steps to bring down the incidence of Salmonella in their plants. While controlling Salmonella in raw poultry has been a tough mission for the poultry processing industry for quite some time, during the five years before the USDA February 2006 notice, the amount of Salmonella FSIS found in chicken-processing plants had been on the rise.

After the poultry industry and other interested parties responded to the notice with comments, USDA announced in January 2007 a series of new policies concerning how it deals with Salmonella in broiler plants.

There are 11 new policies in the FSIS plan, but only three have been implemented so far, with the others still under development. As of now, USDA posts the names of poultry establishments less successful in controlling Salmonella in their plants. This plan started with young chicken slaughter plants. The agency also is setting up what it calls a Salmonella Initiative Program. And it has begun a series of sampling and testing initiatives to be carried out by the poultry industry.

The new policies also include a voluntary, incentive-based program for poultry and meat establishments the agency hopes will yield significant data about how much human illness is caused by products regulated by FSIS.

The agency also is increasing its use of targeted sampling approaches and results from testing, in order to reduce the number of people who get sick eating food infected with Salmonella.

They also include actions the agency has taken over the past two years, including reporting results of individual Salmonella tests to establishments as they become available; posting quarterly nationwide Salmonella data by product class; collecting swab samples from turkey carcasses for Salmonella analysis; and classifying establishments in three process-control categories, according to how they perform in Salmonella performance standard testing, depending on the product the plant is producing.

These categories include:

Category 1 –

Establishments that show Salmonella in 50 percent or less of the performance standard in the two most recent samplings (in other words, the best-performing plants.

Category 2 –

Plants that show Salmonella at above 50 percent in their testing, but not exceeding the standard or guideline in their most recent testing (plants with midlevel performance).

Category 3 –

Plants showing positive Salmonella levels above the performance standard or guideline in the most recently-completed testing, the worst-performing plants.

The agency also began conducting Food Safety Assessments, detailed, painstaking inspection, for Salmonella in plants in Category 3. FSIS also issued new compliance guidelines on controlling Salmonella in young chicken slaughter plants.

The agency also set a goal of having 90 percent of all poultry and meat establishments subject to Salmonella testing being in Category 1 by October, 2010. The agency also planned to change its inspection program to focus more activities on the risk to consumers from the products, which the agency dubbed risk-based inspection (RBI). While plans for this change are still being formulated, FSIS and industry observers think implementation of this approach is further down the road.

The new efforts by USDA to stamp out Salmonella or reduce the pathogen as much as possible, especially in poultry, is actually a followup to requirements in the agency’s massive HACCP regulation initiating big improvements in food safety. While the rule set up HACCP, the other part of the rule, often forgotten, focused on pathogen reduction, including setting Salmonella performance standards for establishments slaughtering certain types of food animals, or producing certain ground products. In poultry, the food animals are young chickens, as well as ground chicken and ground turkey.

"USDA started posting broiler-establishment performance this past April, using March sample results," explains Stephen Pretanik, director of science and technology for the National Chicken Council. The agency planned to post turkey and pork establishment performance this month.

He said the most current posting of the August sample results showed 13 chicken establishments were Category 2, the middle level of effectiveness in controlling Salmonella, while none were in Category 3, the level of plants doing the worst job of containing the pathogen. The two previous months showed no establishments at this worst-performing level.

Pretanik says the poultry industry has shown remarkable improvement in controlling Salmonella in the last two years, when the performance categories were posted. "During the first quarter of 2006, 35.5 percent of the establishments were in Category 1 (the best category), 52.2 percent were in Category 2 (the middle), and 12.4 percent were in Category 3 (the worst category of Salmonella testing). In the second quarter of this year, 81 percent of establishments ranked in Category 1, 19 percent were in Category 2, and there were no establishments at all in Category 3, although these latest figures haven’t been published yet."

Pretanik also compared industry Salmonella data to the information generated by USDA’s regulatory sample data sets. "Back in the first quarter of 2006, FSIS testing showed a national prevalence of Salmonella of 11.5 percent, compared to industry figures showing 6.9 percent. But at the end of the second quarter of this year (2008), the gap narrowed significantly, with FSIS showing a prevalence 5.6 percent (figures not yet published), and industry reporting 4.9 percent," he says.

The National Chicken Council official notes even though the FSIS’ sampling plan is biased toward establishments not meeting the agency’s performance criteria, the second quarter results for this year are interesting since industry conducted nine times as many samples as FSIS.

USDA officials involved with the Salmonella Verification Sampling Program also seemed pleased with the progress being made. Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, deputy assistant administrator in FSIS’ Office of Policy and Program Development, believes the program is having the intended effect the agency wanted, since the number of broiler and other species establishments performing in Category 1 has significantly increased over the past two years.

"In the first quarter of 2008, 77 percent of broiler establishments were performing in Category 1, 22 percent in Category 2 and only one percent in Category 3. This is compared with only 35.5 percent of broiler establishments performing in Category 1 after the first quarter of 2006," Engeljohn says.

So far, no turkey establishment performances have been posted. Engeljohn says FSIS does not intend to post set test results for product classes performing on their Salmonella testing with at least 90 percent of establishments in Category 1 and no establishments in Category 3, which is the case for turkey establishments.

Amanda Eamich, senior press officer for FSIS, notes the improving performance indicates establishments are successfully controlling their plants for Salmonella. "We will continue to monitor pathogen control performance to insure products produced in plants are safe and wholesome," she says.

According to Eamich, other activities related to Salmonella performance are still being developed by the agency and have not been implemented yet. They include the Salmonella Initiative Program, waivers for HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project, online reprocessing and increased line speeds, time/temperature chilling requirement waivers for turkey processors, a Sampling and Testing Initiative, and other upcoming changes in chicken slaughter inspection.

But NCC’s Pretanik says new waivers, mostly time/temperature chilling requirement waivers, are being granted to turkey companies. He added a Federal Register Notice responding to comments submitted on FSIS’ Salmonella Initiative Program is in the final stages of clearance. And the agency will address current waivers for online reprocessing and the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project. FSIS also plans to address new waivers for increased line speeds. The agency has selected five establishments for the Salmonella Initiative Program and is in the process of notifying them of their selection. The establishments will have to meet the sampling and testing criteria outlined in the SIP proposal earlier this year. There will be a comment period for the online reprocessing and HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project.

Pretanik says the Sampling and Testing Initiative is based on a targeted approach still evolving, with more use of Salmonella information when scheduling food safety evaluations in plants. There are going to be more efforts to develop and obtain data to be used to predict the ability of a plant to control pathogens posing human health concerns.

FSIS will soon begin a baseline study on cut-up chicken parts and ground chicken. Data will be used so the agency can establish microbiological guidance criteria for these products.

FSIS is anticipating poultry establishments may have to implement an timicrobial interventions in order to meet its guidance.

Concerning changes to chicken slaughter inspection, Pretanik said FSIS is planning some changes that will require rulemaking, as well as others to be implemented without changing existing regulations. "FSIS is telling the industry a proposed regulation won’t be published until the end of next year," Pretanik said. "But it will be a major rulemaking, requiring extensive Office of Management and Budget [White House] review and approval." Once published, there will be public meetings with stakeholders, in addition to a relatively long comment period, at least 90 days.

The proposed rule will likely include zero tolerance for septicemic and toxemic poultry diseases, and individual carcass defect criteria. There will be performance standards for Salmonella, Campylobacter and generic E. coli, with plants required to conduct tests. Greater enforcement of sanitation will take place, and changes to current regulations regarding carcass chilling, reprocessing, removable animal diseases and standards of identity.

"Non-regulatory changes will include three major components," Pretanik says. They are a computerized public health information system, across-establishment ranking and focused inspection activities. FSIS expects they will be phased in and operational by next fall. There are going to be lots of changes in the way poultry is inspected," he says.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of MEAT&POULTRY, January 2008, starting on Page 54. Click

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