The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Tuesday that it is kicking off an effort to substantially reduce the number of people each year who get sick from poultry products contaminated with salmonella.
The context: The move comes after consumer advocates have repeatedly pressed the department to take a more aggressive approach to reducing salmonella in various chicken and turkey products. The country failed to meet its 2020 goals for cutting salmonella infections, although some testing data has suggested poultry products are less contaminated than they were previously.
USDA said that about 1 million American consumers get sick from salmonella each year. More than 23 percent of those illnesses are estimated to be tied to chicken and poultry products.
What’s new: FSIS said Tuesday it’s “initiating several key activities to gather the data and information necessary to support future action” with the aim of getting closer to the government’s overall goal of cutting salmonella illnesses by 25 percent by 2030. Health officials had previously set 2020 as the deadline for that same level of reduction but failed to reach it.
The agency is asking for feedback on how best to control and measure salmonella. Officials are launching new pilot projects in poultry slaughter and processing plants. They are also suggesting a new focus on certain strains of salmonella that are particularly virulent and are causing the most illnesses.
“We have consistently missed our goal of reducing salmonella infections linked to FSIS-regulated products set by every healthy people initiative over the past number of decades,” Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA, said during a recent speech at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington. Eskin was previously the head of food safety at Pew Charitable Trusts, where she played a key role in advocating for the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Various input: Eskin said FSIS would be taking suggestions from industry, consumer groups and researchers. The North American Meat Institute said it welcomed the plan and would work with the agency.
“The industry has significantly improved efforts to reduce incidence of salmonella, and we will continue to work with USDA to do all we can to detect and deter incidents of salmonellosis, especially by coordinating with partners in the supply chain on best practices and research,” Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the Meat Institute, said in a statement.
Eskin recently nodded to several of the ideas that consumer groups have advocated. For instance, FSIS is examining ways to cut down on contamination coming into plants, such as potentially looking at on-farm practices.
“Even though FSIS does not have regulatory authority on the farm, we are thinking about how we can factor in the use of pre-harvest interventions at a point where FSIS jurisdiction begins, when the birds are presented at slaughter,” Eskin said in the recent speech.
“We know that most salmonella contamination enters the facility with the birds, and the more we can do to reduce contamination at the point of slaughter, the less contamination and cross-contamination we’re going to have in an establishment,” she added.
Status quo fail: “I think we can all agree there is a need for change, that we can’t keep going in the same direction and expect to see the public health impact we want,” Eskin said.
What’s next: The USDA also announced on Tuesday the appointment of several new members of the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a key outside panel to help the government on food safety. The committee plans to meet Nov. 17-19 to talk about salmonella as well as Cyclospora contamination.
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