Salmonella and Campylobacter, pathogens commonly found on poultry, are responsible for approximately three million foodborne illnesses and cost nearly $6 billion annually, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an effort to modernize food safety standards and reduce these numbers, a coalition comprised of consumer groups, poultry industry leaders, academics, and other food safety leaders sent a letter to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack in early September asking for a science-based regulatory approach to poultry standards to ensure more advanced food safety regulations of poultry products.
Among those who signed the letter are poultry producers Butterball, Perdue Farms, and Tyson Foods; consumer advocacy groups the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and Stop Foodborne Illness; and food safety scientists such as Craig Hedberg, PhD, and J. Glenn Morris, PhD.
Martin Wiedmann, PhD, a professor in food safety at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Ithaca, N.Y., who also signed the letter, notes that a key goal of those who participated is for USDA to develop and implement risk-based Salmonella standards. “This probably should take into account the facts that products with higher load of Salmonella (bacteria per gram of product) represent higher public health risk,” he tells Food Quality & Safety.
Additionally, certain Salmonella subtypes that are rarely associated with human disease (e.g., serotype Cerro and certain serotype Kentucky subtypes common in the U.S.) represent a low public health risk, even though they can be common in meat and poultry.
“Under the current system, these facts can lead processors and poultry farmers to focus on reducing the prevalence of frequently found Salmonella that carry limited risk of causing human disease,” Dr. Wiedmann says. “For example, by vaccinating against these specific subtypes, this will drive down prevalence in poultry but will have limited effects on reducing human salmonellosis cases.”
The letter questions why the Department of Health and Human Services plan in 2010 to reduce foodborne illness as part of its Healthy People 2020 was never carried out, citing that Salmonella and Campylobacter illness rates have not decreased since this time.
Emerging Evidence and New Poultry Science
Michael Taylor, who served as administrator for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 1994 to 1996, when the current standards were written, notes that the science has grown by “leaps and bounds” since those poultry standards were first enacted. “It was the best we could do at the time, but what we know now makes the standards on the books no longer defensible,” he adds.
This is why the coalition says it seeks objective, risk-based, achievable, enforceable standards, flexible enough to adapt to emerging evidence and the latest science. “Modernized standards should not stifle innovation,” the letter stated. “Instead, they should invite innovation and technology development.”
The coalition believes that Campylobacter than Salmonella should be looked at in “parallel but separate proceedings,” as a gap exists between knowledge of the two diseases.
Additionally, the group strongly encourages USDA to review and reinvigorate programs around Salmonella that exist within the National Poultry Improvement Plan.
As of September 16, there has been no public response to the letter from Secretary Vilsack.