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2011, the agency has revised pathogen standards for chicken and turkey products, but standards for other products are outdated, with no time frames for revision.”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Durbin of Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, following a related 2014 review in which the GAO identified outdated, nonexistent, and limited control over factors at play in reducing pathogens in poultry products.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.
In a podcast on the GAO website, Steve D. Morris, director of natural resources and environment team at GAO, says the USDA began setting pathogen standards for meat and poultry in 1996 in response to pathogen outbreaks in the 1990s, and did so based on the level of pathogens present at the time, without much consideration about how much of a reduction would best benefit the health of U.S. meat consumers.
While there remain no pathogen standards for some kinds of meat such as ground pork, standards for other products like ground beef haven’t been updated since the 1990s.
“Setting these standards for meat and poultry products is not really an easy task,” Morris says. “It really requires USDA to fully assess the health risk to consumers, which in some cases can take a number of years.”
The GAO report made three recommendations to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS):
- The FSIS should document the process by which the USDA determines which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis for the decisions they make;
- The FSIS should set time frames to determine which pathogen standards are necessary to protect the public from pathogens in beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts, and ground pork; and
- As the FSIS finalizes its guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs, the FSIS should include available information about effectiveness of farm-site practices for reducing pathogen levels.
Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for the Office of Food Safety, concurs with each of the three recommendations in a four-page letter included in the report, though she notes that the FSIS has no on-farm jurisdiction pre-harvest. She also says the FSIS was revising its draft compliance guidelines to address Salmonella in market hogs.
However, Rottenberg takes issue with the report’s characterization that the USDA did not have the assurance that its decisions were risk-based.
“Although FSIS agrees that it can take additional steps to internally document its process for creating and updating pathogen reduction performance standards,” Rottenburg writes, “it does not agree with the GAO that the agency does not have assurance its decisions are risk-based and that the agency personnel will not know the process when making decisions. FSIS has consistently documented and published its process within the Federal Register through which FSIS announces or proposes new standards. Agency personnel use these Federal Register notices as guidances and as historical reference when developing new standards.”