USDA tests show that 16.25 percent of broiler chickens were contaminated with Salmonella in 2005. In 2000, only 9.09 percent were contaminated. If the new standard had been in effect from 1998 to 2005, up to 22 plants which had failed to meet the Salmonella standard may have likely not been tested because they had less than 12 percent contamination in two previous testing periods, according to Food and Water Watch findings.
“This is the floor, not the ceiling,” Lovera says. “USDA should not be scaling back on testing, but doing more. It doesn’t seem like the logical place to cut back.
“Clearly there are things consumers can do to make sure poultry is cooked by using a meat thermometer and not cross contaminating ingredients,” Lovera adds. “But it is the responsibility of the poultry plants to make the product as safe as can be. The industry bears the responsibility for a safe product. It comes with a government stamp of approval noting that the poultry has been inspected and passed as safe. They need to back the sale up.”
The next step for Food and Water Watch is to submit a report to the USDA office to make sure it is in their docket. “We have regular meetings with coalition groups and agencies; we need to get on the FSIS agenda and receive a response to the report,” she says.
“It should not be left to non-profit groups to let consumers know which companies failed to meet government food safety standards,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch. “If USDA is going to live up to its rhetoric, they need to routinely test all plants and disclose the results.”
USDA Response to Food and Water Watch Recommendations
Food and Water Watch’s first recommendation is that USDA should seek legislation that makes performance standards enforceable under the meat and poultry inspection statutes.
“That recommendation will not be followed,” says Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety. “We believe in working collaboratively and cooperatively with the industry.”
“In August (2005) we declared war on Salmonella,” he explains. “The contamination rates were going in the wrong direction for chicken, ground turkey and ground chicken, while we were seeing dramatic drops in common food borne pathogens. We took this seriously and built incentives and disincentives. By working [with the chicken plants], our results for the past four to five quarters show a decline. I do believe the cooperative, collaborative fashion is working. I don’t think we need legislation to do this.”
The old way of testing was to withdraw inspection after a plant failed three sets. “That is a failure of the system,” Raymond says. “We want to be set to go into action after the first failed set and do a food safety assessment to help them improve. Peer pressure and economic incentives can also help. It is too much of a risk to the public.”
The categorizing of plants based on their success in meeting the regulatory standard will begin soon. “Based on the last two sets of testing, 25 percent of plants would be in Category 1. That has nearly doubled in the last year,” he says. “The plants have taken the issue seriously. That’s another reason we don’t need legislation.”
Food and Water Watch’s second recommendation is that USDA should publish on its Web site Salmonella testing results for each plant on a quarterly basis, including the number of samples taken at the plant and the number that tested positive for Salmonella.
“We agree with them,” Raymond says. “We announced in February that plants have one year to improve and will very likely make it even more stringent that plants can only fail 10 percent of their sets. If it is above that, we will list them.”