Each package of raw poultry sold in this country has this stamp on the label: “Inspected for wholesomeness by U.S. Department of Agriculture.” It also displays the establishment number of where the poultry was processed.
According to the recently released report from the Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to stopping corporate control of food and water), 106 broiler chicken plants in 27 states and Puerto Rico failed to meet the performance standard in at least one Salmonella testing period. Their analysis claims that Salmonella contamination rates have risen in the past two years.
“Salmonella is one of the pathogens of concern,” according to Steven Cohen, senior press officer for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “It was a new initiative to test for Salmonella in broiler chickens. While other categories were decreasing, there were a series of increases in poultry contamination collectively since 2002. Since the last quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the numbers have improved.”
Varying Acceptable Percentages
The bacteria Salmonella is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States, with nearly a million cases of salmonellosis attributed annually to meat and poultry consumption, according to the Food and Water Watch report. Of these, over 9,000 of the victims are hospitalized and over 250 die. The annual cost of illnesses and premature death from Salmonella is estimated to be around $1.5 billion. Food and Water Watch is increasingly concerned about the potential for pathogens, including Salmonella, to become resistant to antibiotics. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more frequently associated with illness and death than those caused by bacteria that are not antibiotic-resistant.
FSIS began enforcing a new Salmonella standard in 1998 by testing raw and ground products for the presence of the pathogen, according to the Food and Water Watch report. The purpose of the new program was to use microbial sampling to determine when plants were not controlling food safety hazards in their production processes. Testing was also supposed to serve as an objective indicator of when industry and/or government were not fulfilling their food safety responsibilities.
The acceptable level of contamination established for each product was originally based on the average level of Salmonella present for each class of product at the time that initial baseline tests were taken, so USDA’s acceptable percentage of Salmonella contamination varies greatly by product.
To determine the contamination level for a particular plant, the USDA tests a sample of the finished product each day that the plant is operating until the requisite number of samples is taken. The number of required daily samples differs by species. So, for example, the testing period for a plant that slaughters steers and heifers would be as long as is necessary to collect 82 daily samples, whereas the testing period for a broiler chicken plant would be long enough to collect 51 daily samples, according to the report.
The length of the testing period is also affected by the frequency with which a plant produces the product. Some small plants do not produce every day, and therefore the testing period would be longer at these plants to collect the same number of samples. The “contamination rate” of a plant is the percentage of the daily samples that are contaminated with Salmonella during the testing period.
Salmonella Testing in Broiler Chickens
To determine the contamination level for a particular broiler chicken plant, the report indicates that USDA collects daily samples until 51 samples have been collected. For high volume plants that are producing five to seven days each week, this testing period usually takes between two and three months.
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.
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.”
The third recommendation is that USDA should abandon a new policy that plants, which had less than half the acceptable rate of Salmonella in their last two testing periods, will not be scheduled for another testing period for 12 to 24 months.
“We have finite resources and only a certain amount of money for Salmonella testing and plant inspections,” Raymond explains. “We have to spend it wisely and get the best bang for the buck. If I have a poultry producer who consistently comes in under 50 percent, why should they be tested every seven to eight months? I trust the plant that consistently comes in under 50 percent because that is where they want to be. If I have another plant that fails every other Salmonella set, I want to put my resources where the risk is the greatest and to get them into compliance. Risk-based inspections. I believe strongly in that.”
As far as the Food and Water Watch report, Raymond says it is very helpful to have external watchdogs.
“Anytime we get a report, it helps us look harder internally. We have listened and changed. One example is USDA policy to only test for Salmonella during a plant’s first shift. It doesn’t measure the prevalence; there can be a different result during the second shift, he says. “We welcome their comments and meet monthly to discuss these types of issue.”
However, he does not feel that the report has the best value as it was written. “They went way back in history,” Raymond comments. “It is more important to look forward; 1999 data is just confusing. They should have concentrated on last year’s data and made the report more pertinent.”
Also, he wishes that Food and Water Watch would have come to the USDA directly during a 60 day period for public comments on Salmonella testing plans. “They did not submit the report through the proper channels or normal procedure of public opinion,” he adds. –FQ