USDA proposes sweeping changes for the poultry industry

DES MOINES, Iowa – The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday proposed sweeping changes in the way chicken and turkey are processed that are intended to reduce illnesses from food contamination but could require meat companies to make major changes to their operations.

although decades of efforts to try and reduce the disease caused by salmonella in food, more than 1 million people get sick every year and nearly a fourth of those cases come from turkey and chicken meat.

As it stands, consumers bear a lot of responsibility to avoid illness from raw poultry by handling it carefully in the kitchen – following the usual advice not to wash raw chicken or turkey (it spreads bacteria), use separate utensils when preparing meat and cooking . up to 165 degrees. The USDA’s Department of Food Safety and Food Inspection wants to do that by starting with the farmers who raise the birds and following the processing plants where the meat is made.

those food poisoning target: Of the more than 2,500 salmonella serotypes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified three that cause one third of all human illnesses from chicken and turkey products. The agency proposes to limit the presence of this in poultry products.

In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step by declaring several strains of E. coli as contaminants in beef and launching a testing program for the pathogen that significantly reduced disease from meat.

In an effort to reduce salmonella outbreaks in poultry, the agency proposed a regulatory framework that would include testing incoming flocks of chickens and turkeys for bacterial diseases that commonly affect the intestinal tract and affect 1.3 million people annually with symptoms that may include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. can last for several days. Officials hope testing chickens and turkeys before they enter the slaughterhouse will encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce bacterial infections in birds before they reach the meat processing plant.

The second measure would require enhanced surveillance for salmonella during processing by adopting sampling for bacteria at various stages inside the processing facility. The third major change will establish the maximum level of bacterial contamination allowed and the possibility of limiting three specific types of salmonella that can make people sick. Meat that will exceed the limit or that contains the type of salmonella is prohibited to be withheld from the market.

FSIS will begin the lengthy process of proposing new rules by holding a public hearing on Nov. 3 to get input from the livestock industry and others. The government’s goal is to create new rules and regulations that can be launched early next year and completed in two years.

The agency said it’s time to launch these ideas and get input before setting company regulations. The agency hopes to begin rulemaking in mid-2023 and complete it within two years, said USDA Food Safety Undersecretary Sandra Eskin.

“We know this is the pivot from which the agency has been in the past and that’s why we’re trying to be as transparent and deliberative and collaborative as possible,” Eskin said.

Consumer advocates have been pushing for such action on poultry products for years. Eskin said President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing for change.

Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading lawyers to represent consumers sick from food sources applauded the action of our agency that recognizes that controlling salmonella on animals before they reach the processing plant is very important to reduce meat contamination. He said FSIS should be bold and deem salmonella is an adulterant – a contaminant that can cause food-borne illness – in all meat as a starting point.

“What they have outlined is something unique that has never been done before but has no timeline and no regulations attached to show that it will actually be implemented. That’s the criticism,” he said.

The industry has been unable to meet government targets to reduce food-borne salmonella infections for decades. Meeting the new target set for 2030 of 11.5 infections per 100,000 people a year will require a 25% reduction, Eskin said.

Eskin said the industry has reduced the number of chicken samples contaminated with salmonella by 50% from 2017 to 2021, but the rate of salmonella illness over the past two decades has not decreased significantly. More than 23% of foodborne salmonella illnesses are caused by poultry consumption and nearly 17% come from chicken meat and more than 6% from turkey meat.

The North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing US packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey said efforts to combat salmonella are a high priority.

“We are encouraged to see FSIS go through the regular rulemaking process. We look forward to reviewing the proposal and receiving comments from industry,” said Julie Anna Potts, the group’s president and CEO.

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents companies that raise and process chickens for meat, said they support efforts to reduce salmonella in chicken products.

“We are concerned that the current proposed framework lacks the industry input, research and data to support it,” said Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the group.

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