To collect a single sample, a FSIS inspector takes a carcass from the end of the plant’s production line, puts it in a sterile plastic bag with a chemical solution and agitates it for one minute. This solution is then sent to an FSIS lab to determine if the carcass was contaminated with Salmonella.
Since 1998, USDA has published only generalized data from its Salmonella program, generally on an annual basis. According to the report, several months ago, the agency announced it would begin publishing quarterly data and it issued the first quarterly report on June 23. The agency also announced that, to increase incentives for plants to produce safe food, it would begin categorizing plants based on their success in meeting the regulatory standard and would begin reporting the status of individual plants on its Web site. USDA could not specify when this reporting would begin.
Category 3 plants would be those that failed the regulatory standard with higher than 24 percent contamination rate; Category 2 plants would be those with a contamination rate of 13 to 24 percent; and Category 1 plants would be those with less than a 12 percent contamination rate.
A similar situation involving Salmonella in ground beef led Food and Water Watch to tackle the topic of poultry plants.
“When the Public Citizen’s report was published, people were most interested in who failed the inspections,” comments Patricia Lovera, assistant director for Food and Water Watch. “It’s frustrating to us that to date, USDA has never publicly released information on which plants failed to meet Salmonella standards, despite an announcement that would consider doing so as a way to increase incentives for better industry performance.”
According to Food and Water Watch, the federal government instituted major changes in the meat inspection system in 1996 by creating HACCP. “Because of this, there is a lot of routine testing that goes on in a plant,” Lovera says. “But they don’t give out the results of individual plant’s testing. With such unclear testing, how do you know if performance gets better?”
“The baseline for Salmonella in poultry is pretty high (23.5 percent) and it’s even higher for ground turkey (54.7 percent),” she explains. “There’s an issue when you are starting with baseline levels that high, you have to wonder what’s going on. We don’t have enough access to the plants to know what is going on. Most have their own methods for using anti-microbial rinses or chlorine based substances in the water that are designed to deal with pathogen issues.”
So, what are these poultry plants consistently not doing to get such high Salmonella contamination rates?
“That is the million dollar question,” Lovera says. “It seems like there can be a dramatic change from one test period to the next.” That is why Food and Water Watch is against USDA’s proposal to reduce the frequency of testing at plants that have passed two previous testing periods.
The USDA notice, released June 29, 2006, states that plants which had two testing periods with contamination rates less than half the acceptable level (less than 12 percent) would not likely be scheduled for more testing for 12 to 24 months because of their above average performance.
According to the Food and Water Watch report, the agency initially established an enforcement program for its Salmonella program in the late 1990s. Actions grew progressively serious with each additional failed testing period. If the plant failed to comply with the Salmonella regulations for three consecutive testing periods, inspectors were withdrawn.
In 2001, however, a federal District Court ruled that the agency could not withdraw inspection solely based on a plant’s failure to meet the requirements of the Salmonella regulation. Since then, USDA reportedly increases the level of scrutiny at a plant with each successive Salmonella failure and may take enforcement action after considering the results of those investigations. No plant has been shut down for failing to meet the performance standard since the court decision.