According to a 2011 CDC estimate, every year one in six Americans is sickened as a result of eating contaminated food, and foodborne pathogens cause more than 9 million human illnesses (including 2 million cases from Salmonella and Campylobacter alone).
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Accordingly, the USDA sets maximum allowable standards of Salmonella and Campylobacter. However, according to a report released in April by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the USDA is not working as effectively as it could be to prevent foodborne pathogens.
“USDA has developed standards limiting the amount of Salmonella and Campylobacter permitted in certain meat (beef and pork) and poultry (chicken and turkey) products, such as ground beef, pork carcasses, and chicken breasts,” David W. Bennett, GAO senior analyst, tells Food Quality & Safety. “However, the agency has not developed standards for other products that are widely available, such as turkey breasts and pork chops. In addition, as of 2011, the agency has revised pathogen standards for chicken and turkey products, but standards for other products are outdated, with no time frames for revision.”
These gaps are at the core of the GAO’s report, written in response to a request from Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Richard Durbin of Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, following a related 2014 review in which the GAO identified outdated, nonexistent, and limited control over factors at play in reducing pathogens in poultry products.
Explaining the gaps in standard-coverage, Bennett says, “USDA’s process for deciding which products to consider for new standards is unclear because it is not fully documented, which is not consistent with federal standards for internal control. For example, USDA has informed stakeholders that it will take into account factors including consumption and illness data, but the agency has not documented this process going forward. Previously, USDA had developed new standards after widespread outbreaks indicated the need.”
The USDA could more reliably develop risk-based decisions about standards, Bennett says, by documenting its decisions about which processes to consider.
About Jesse Staniforth
Jesse Staniforth is a Montreal-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor covering a variety of different beats. He reports regularly on Indigenous issues for The Nation magazine, serving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, as well on Information Security issues for SC Magazine. His stories have appeared in a wide variety of other publications, from the Toronto Star and Metro News through AskMen.com and University Affairs. After editing several thousands of pages' worth of food preparation training materials for a hospitality industry group, he grew fascinated with the subject of food safety. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.