Traditional Poultry Meat Inspection Doesn’t Address Biggest Public Health Threats, EFSA

Standard methods of inspection can’t detect the most significant pathogenic threats to human health found in meat poultry, according to a scientific opinion published July 3 by the European Food Safety Authority.

In the U.S. and Europe, poultry meat inspection is largely postmortem and “organoleptic”-relying on the five senses to detect flaws. That’s an effective approach in terms of ensuring poultry quality-finding bruised birds or those with tumors-and animal health and welfare, but it’s insufficient for the detection of pathogens. “You can’t see Salmonella or Campylobacter,” said Will Hueston, DVM, PhD, executive director of the Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Those two pathogens, along with ESBL/AmpC gene-carrying bacteria, are the most relevant human health hazards in poultry meat, says the EFSA report. The authority proposes shifting from an inspection-based system to a more fully integrated approach, one that includes controls at farm and slaughterhouse levels, and collection and analysis of food chain information to stratify risk levels.

“This is the most important takeaway from the report,” said Dr. Hueston, who praised the EFSA opinion for its thoroughness and specificity, and for including perspectives from three different expert panels: one on biological hazards, one on contaminants in the food chain, and one on animal health and welfare. “It’s critical that we move to an integrated food safety assessment that follows the whole supply chain, including feed, water, and farm conditions, antemortem flock health, and select postmortem examinations.”

The report also emphasizes the importance of hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) programs, plant sanitation, and animal handling.

Dr. Hueston pointed to the experience of Dutch food producer VION, which several years ago moved from traditional food inspection for its pork products to a food-chain approach such as that proposed by EFSA in its meat poultry report. “Any farm that worked with them had to meet a series of requirements and do data collection,” he said. “VION did farm audits and tracked inspection information, and if the farm passed all of that, they moved to this new inspection system and essentially stopped manually feeling carcasses.”

This resulted in fewer postmortem inspections and increased food safety, because another limitation of manual inspection of meat products is that it can introduce or spread contaminants. “If an inspector is touching birds as they go past, he could well be spreading a pathogen further,” said Dr. Hueston.

Read the full text of the EFSA opinion here.

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