US may adopt stricter pathogen standards for poultry

Published on February 25, 2015
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Most poultry sold in the U.S. could soon have to meet more stringent limits on the presence of Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria to avoid public scrutiny.

A proposal published in January by the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would establish new standards on the pathogens’ presence in chicken pieces and set lower limits in existing standards in ground chicken and ground turkey. By meeting the standards, poultry industries could prevent 50,000 illnesses each year, about 43,000 of those attributable to reduced pathogen concentrations in chicken parts, according to a Jan. 26 Federal Register notice.

Such performance standards are used to categorize companies that sell poultry or beef, and the notice indicates the standards could be expanded to include pork. The FSIS has three categories: one for top performers, another for others that still meet the standards, and a third for those that fail to meet the standards. 

USDA figures indicate poultry industries could prevent illnesses by meeting proposed standards on the presence of Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria.

The FSIS now publishes a publicly available listing of the names of companies in the third category, and the agency would publish names in all three under the proposed rules.

The most recent information available from the FSIS indicates that, in the first quarter of 2014, about 85 percent of facilities processing chicken, turkey, or beef qualified for inclusion in the top category; 12 percent were in the middle category; and fewer than 3 percent failed to meet the standards.

The FSIS has had performance standards for reducing the presence of Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria in whole chickens, but concentrations of the pathogens tend to increase as a chicken is cut into parts, according to an agency announcement. Chicken accounts for 85 percent of poultry sold in the U.S., and chicken pieces comprise about 80 percent of chicken products sold. Those figures from the USDA indicate the rules on chicken parts alone would affect two-thirds of poultry sold in the U.S.

FSIS testing indicates about 28 percent of chicken parts are contaminated with Salmonella bacteria, but that figure is expected to decline to 18 percent if the standards are implemented. Campylobacter contamination is expected to decrease from 22 percent to 16 percent.

In ground chicken, Salmonella contamination in samples is expected to decline from 49 percent to 34 percent, and Campylobacter contamination from 3 percent to 2 percent. In ground turkey, Salmonella contamination is expected to decline from 20 percent to 14 percent, and Campylobacter contamination would decrease slightly to 1 percent.

FSIS officials expect to announce the final standards this spring, according to the Federal Register.

The agency also planned to start testing for Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria in imported chicken and turkey carcasses in March, the notice states. Findings from the tests could be used to evaluate an importing country’s food safety system and influence actions such as audits.

The agency also plans exploratory testing for pathogens in pork.

In proposing the standards, the FSIS cites efforts to reach the federal Healthy People 2020 goals of reducing foodborne illnesses from Salmonella bacteria by 25 percent and Campylobacter bacteria by 33 percent.