The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new, stricter limit on salmonella bacteria in poultry products. It's a new attempt to make headway against one of the country's biggest, and most intractable, food safety problems.
Salmonella bacteria on raw poultry and fresh produce are estimated to cause about 1 million cases of illness in the U.S. each year. It has proved difficult to reduce that number because the bacteria are so commonly found in the environment, and especially in poultry.
Even when companies wash chicken carcasses after slaughter, the USDA has found the bacteria on about a quarter of all cut-up chicken parts heading for supermarket shelves. It's a good reason to handle raw chicken carefully, wash your hands afterward, and cook the meat well.
Under the USDA's new standard, companies will be required to reduce the frequency of contaminated chicken parts to 15 percent or less. The new standard also sets limits for turkey and ground meat products. A separate standard covers another disease-causing type of bacterium, called Campylobacter.
Alfred Almanza, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for food safety, says that after a year of testing, the USDA will start posting test results from each poultry processing plant online for consumers to see.
"[This] is not a good thing for them, if they're failing," Almanza says. "So those are pretty significant deterrents, or incentives for them to meet or exceed our standard."
The USDA says that when companies meet this new standard, 50,000 fewer people will get sick from salmonella each year.
But there's a lot of guesswork in that calculation, and some are not convinced that it's really true. William James, for instance, the former chief veterinarian for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, thinks the USDA's entire approach to controlling salmonella is flawed. James now works as a consultant for private companies.
James points to the agency experience with an earlier version of the salmonella standard, which he helped put in place. It did reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria that were found on poultry, yet illness rates did not drop.
The problem, he says, is that these USDA standards treat all salmonella alike, when there actually are more than 2,000 different genetic strains of the bacterium, and most of them don't make people sick. In fact, the ones that don't make you sick probably are beneficial, because they compete with the salmonella strains that really are dangerous, James says.
James wants poultry companies to take more accurate aim at their problem. "The key here is probably to focus on those few types that are causing illness, and get serious about trying to eliminate those," he says.
He says that poultry companies should be testing their chicken houses for those specific bacteria, such as one strain called Salmonella Heidelberg. When the bacteria show up in a flock, those chickens should be slaughtered separately, he says, and the buildings where they lived should be decontaminated.
The USDA's Almanza agrees that having a standard based on the prevalence of all salmonella is imprecise, but he thinks it still will help uncover food safety problems. "If you have a high level of salmonella, you are going to have some that are of significance to public health," he says.
He believes that the new standard, and the power of posting test results online, will force companies to take additional measures to make sure their products are safe.
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