USDA toughens poultry standards to prevent Salmonella

February 05, 2016

In a new attempt to make headway against Salmonella, one of the country's biggest, and most intractable, food safety problems, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new, stricter limit on the bacteria in poultry products.

This news comes at a fitting time as a recent report estimates that 1.3 billion chicken wings will be consumed across the nation this weekend for Super Bowl 50. This figure is up 3%, or 37.5 million wings, from last year’s big game, as chicken wings have been deemed the most consumed food during Super Bowl weekend.

Salmonella bacteria on raw poultry and fresh produce are estimated to cause about one million cases of illness in the U.S. each year. As stated in a recent article, it has proved difficult to reduce that number because the bacteria are so commonly found in the environment, and especially in poultry.

Even when companies wash chicken carcasses after slaughter, the USDA says they found the bacteria on about a quarter of all cut-up chicken parts heading for supermarket shelves. Thus, making it a good reason to handle raw chicken carefully, wash your hands afterward, and cook the meat well, the article states.

Under the USDA's new standard, companies will be required to reduce the frequency of contaminated chicken parts to 15% or less. The new standard also sets limits for turkey and ground meat products and yet another separate standard recently announced covers Campylobacter, another disease-causing foodborne bacteria.

Alfred Almanza, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for food safety, said that after a year of testing, the USDA will start posting test results from each poultry processing plant online for consumers to see and hopes that when companies meet this new standard, 50,000 fewer people will get sick from Salmonella each year.

"[This] is not a good thing for them,” Almanza said, referring to the posting of failing company’s test results. “Those are pretty significant deterrents, or incentives for them to meet or exceed our standard," he added.

However, some are not convinced that these measures will actually help reduce the amount of illness attributed to Salmonella. William James, for instance, the former chief veterinarian for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said he thinks the USDA's entire approach to controlling Salmonella is flawed and that there is a lot of guesswork involved in their calculations.

The problem, he said in the article, is that these USDA standards treat all Salmonella alike, when there actually are more than 2,000 different genetic strains of the bacterium, and most of them don't make people sick. In fact, the ones that don't make you sick probably are beneficial, because they compete with the Salmonella strains that really are dangerous, James explained.

Because of this, he said that poultry companies should be testing their chicken houses for those specific bacteria, such as one strain called Salmonella Heidelberg. When the bacteria show up in a flock, those chickens should be slaughtered separately, he says, and the buildings where they lived should be decontaminated.

The USDA's Almanza agrees that having a standard based on the prevalence of all Salmonella is imprecise, but he said he thinks it will still help uncover food safety problems. "If you have a high level of Salmonella, you are going to have some that are of significance to public health.”

Almanza said he believes that the new standard, and the power of posting test results online, will force companies to take additional measures to make sure their products are safe.

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To read more about the chicken wing’s popularity on Super Bowl Sunday, click here.


Category: Food Safety