The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) on Dec. 4 unveiled a plan designed to lay the groundwork for making progress in reducing illnesses related to Salmonella in poultry and meat products. Each year, about 1.3 million Americans contract Salmonella-related illnesses, and the incidence of the illnesses has remained at a steady or even increased rate in recent years, the F.S.I.S. said, defying current interventions.
“Far too many Americans are sickened by Salmonella every year,” said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. “The aggressive and comprehensive steps detailed in the Salmonella action plan will protect consumers by making meat and poultry products safer.”
The 10-part plan outlined the agency’s strategy on how best to address the incidence of Salmonella in meat and poultry products. The plan identified as its first step and a priority the modernizing of the poultry slaughter inspection system.
This step refers to the proposed rule “Modernization of poultry slaughter inspection,” which was published in the Jan. 27, 2012, Federal Register. Comments were collected by the F.S.I.S. through April 2012, and a final rule is expected to be published in April 2014. The rule aimed to institute a new inspection system for young chicken and turkey slaughter plants.
The proposed rule itself generated controversy among some consumer groups in that it would reduce the number of F.S.I.S. inspectors to one per production line and permit faster line speeds than are allowed under current inspection systems. The proposal would permit processing line speeds in poultry plants at 175 chickens per minute compared with 140 as currently allowed, and turkey line speeds would be permitted to operate at 55 turkeys per minute compared with 45 currently.
To make the adjustment to one inspector per line and faster line speeds, the new inspection system would require plant personnel to conduct carcass sorting activities before F.S.I.S. carcass inspection so only carcasses the plant deems likely to pass inspection are presented to the carcass inspector. The F.S.I.S. said by limiting the number of inspectors per production line to one would allow other agency inspectors to check off-line areas of a slaughter facility.
“By focusing inspectors’ duties solely on food safety, at least 5,000 illnesses may be prevented each year,” the F.S.I.S. claimed.
The plan also called for enhancing Salmonella sampling and testing programs, ensuring the programs take into account the latest scientific information available and account for emerging trends in foodborne illness.
Under the plan, inspectors will be empowered with the tools necessary to expeditiously pinpoint problems, the F.S.I.S. said. With more information about a plant’s performance history and with better methods for assessing in-plant conditions, inspectors will be better positioned to detect Salmonella earlier, before it may cause an outbreak, the F.S.I.S. asserted.
In addition, the plan outlined several actions F.S.I.S. will take to drive innovations that will lower Salmonella contamination rates, including establishing new performance standards; developing new strategies for inspection throughout the farm-to-table continuum; addressing potential sources of Salmonella; and focusing the agency’s education and outreach tools on Salmonella.
Notable was the attention the plan gives to pork.
“Decreasing the sanitary dressing problems in hog slaughter establishments, particularly related to removing the skin, could decrease a source of Salmonella on carcasses,” the F.S.I.S. said.
The action plan called for the publishing of a directive that provides instructions to F.S.I.S. inspectors on the verification activities related to sanitary dressing procedures in hog slaughter operations.
Meat and poultry industry representatives welcomed the F.S.I.S. initiative and pledged to continue to work with the agency on reducing the incidence of Salmonella.
“F.S.I.S.’s actions should help ensure that future policy considerations are based on scientific data and have a public health outcome,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs and general counsel, American Meat Institute. “Our industry has funded important Salmonella research in the past year, and we are eager to share those findings so they may add to the agency’s body of knowledge about this pathogen.”
Tom Super, vice-president of communications for the National Chicken Council, pointed to progress already achieved through F.S.I.S. and industry cooperation.
“But we are constantly striving to do better,” Mr. Super said. “We urge U.S.D.A. to move forward with modernizing the poultry inspection system in order to build on our progress. As the action plan indicates, we expect a new F.S.I.S. performance standard for chicken parts sometime in early 2014. The National Chicken Council is taking this very seriously, and we are working collectively as an industry to determine more opportunities in second processing that will further decrease Salmonella on parts.”
Consumer groups acknowledged the plan contained improvements from current practices but also raised concerns.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director, Food & Water Watch, objected to the agency’s inclusion of its proposed rule Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection as a top priority in the action plan.
“This flawed proposed rule cannot serve as the foundation of any serious plan to reduce Salmonella rates in meat and poultry products,” Ms. Hauter said. “To really tackle the Salmonella problem, U.S.D.A. should not be trying to cut government inspection of poultry products. Instead, the Obama administration needs to get the legal authority from Congress to hold companies accountable for putting contaminated food into commerce, not deregulate inspection.”
Sarah Klein, senior food safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “The U.S.D.A.’s latest Salmonella action plan completely ignores one of the most critical issues facing consumers and the meat industry today: antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.”
The action plan’s failure to address antibiotic resistance “is a weakness that continues to leave the public at risk,” she said.
Ms. Klein applauded the plan’s enhanced approach for evaluating plant performance as it would enable F.S.I.S. “to respond more nimbly and generate more useful data.” But, she added, “F.S.I.S. should go further, however, and test every poultry and beef slaughter plant every week for Salmonella. This would increase consumer protection, as it would give F.S.I.S. real-time data on plant performance and allow the agency to take prompt action if a plant veers off course.”