New Approaches Needed in Reducing Salmonella-Related Illnesses

Current federal performance standards for Salmonella contamination in chicken “do not adequately protect public health” and should be improved, a report released last month by the Pew Charitable Trusts asserts. The document suggests changes that could improve the control of Salmonella contamination in chicken and strengthen federal regulators’ responses to outbreaks.

The report is critical of the response by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to recent multistate outbreaks of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. The authors note that two multistate outbreaks, which have sickened at least 523 people, have been linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms. The Foster Farms’ California plant was recently shut down on January 8 by the feds, not because of contaminated products, but due to roach infestation. 

“When you have more than 500 people getting sick from products produced by companies that are following government policies, that means those policies are not protecting public health,” says Sandra Eskin, JD. Eskin is director of food safety at Pew and leader of the project that produced the December 19 report, “Weaknesses in FSIS’s Salmonella Regulation.”

Deficiencies identified in the Pew document include the following:

  • In contrast to other pathogens, FSIS does not consider Salmonella to be an adulterant in raw poultry;
  • Performance standards are not updated regularly and do not incorporate public health objectives;
  • There are no performance standards for chicken parts, which are more widely purchased than whole chickens;
  • Companies receive notification before government testing for Salmonella; and
  • The FSIS cannot close a plant based only on results of Salmonella verification testing.

Changes recommended in the report include updating performance standards regularly, issuing standards for chicken parts, and conducting unannounced testing. The report authors also suggest “establishing limits on Salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter into the slaughterhouse, which may require legislation.”

The Pew report was released just days after the FSIS released its own “Salmonella Action Plan,” outlining steps to decrease what the plan calls “FSIS-attributable Salmonellosis.”

While Eskin says she is pleased that the FSIS is focusing on Salmonella contamination, she notes that “the report has a lot more aspirations than it has specific actions.”

“I characterize their action plan as baby steps when we really need giant ones at this point,” she continues. “We have had little success in reducing the number of Salmonella infections in recent years. What we have been doing has not been working. We need to come up with new strategies to address the problem.”


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