Is FSIS Too Lax with Salmonella in Turkey?

At least one person has died and more than 110 in 31 states have been sickened as a result of this summer’s outbreak of Salmonella involving two distinct but closely related strains. After recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey linked to the outbreak in early August, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. restarted limited operations at its Springdale, Ark., plant Aug. 18. Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said that the decision had come after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved additional antibacterial measures.

But is it enough? The Consumers Union (CU), which publishes Consumer Reports, issued a scathing indictment of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) standards for ground turkey in the wake of the outbreak, noting that it permits 49.9% of samples in a test run to be positive for Salmonella.

CU noted that first-quarter 2011 tests of 121 samples of ground turkey at 22 facilities found that 10.7% were contaminated—too high, the advocacy group said. “For one in 10 packages of ground turkey to potentially be contaminated with disease-causing Salmonella is simply too great a risk,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at CU. Noting that the agency recently reduced the acceptable level of the pathogen in whole turkeys from 19% to 1.7%, she called for similar reductions in the standard for ground turkey.

But testing isn’t necessarily the best way to a safe food supply, said Guy Loneragan, PhD, an epidemiologist and professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I believe the best method is to design, test, and implement systems that effectively deal with the incoming load of pathogens. The critical steps in this process need then to be intensively monitored so that if the process is working as it should, then it will be effective. Testing, in this sense, is then used as a means to evaluate process control and determine when it is out of control.”

While testing can be useful, Dr. Loneragan said, industry and government should focus on further development of FSIS-mandated hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plans.

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