Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

USDA Email Reveals Poultry Industry Plans to Monitor Pathogens

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors should not interfere with poultry industry efforts to collect chicken samples from processing facilities for a program intended to set pathogen reduction goals, according to an internal email from an administrator within the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The email, which was sent internally on Friday and released to the public on Tuesday by Food & Water Watch, was the first known acknowledgement of such a program by USDA or the poultry industry.

The program, organized by the National Chicken Council, aims to collect samples of chicken parts from “most all poultry establishments” in order to develop voluntary pathogen reduction performance goals, said Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, FSIS Assistant Administrator for the Office of Field Operations and author of the email.

“As a consequence, there is the potential that some in-plant inspectors and field supervisors may begin questioning this effort and take steps to force the establishments to turn over the results of the sampling,” Engeljohn wrote to more than a dozen FSIS personnel. “Please talk to your field staff to discourage them from interrupting an important industry effort.”

Because inspectors may mistakenly assume that the sampling could influence decision-making at individual poultry establishments, field inspection teams should be briefed to not interrupt this “important industry effort,” Engeljohn continued. As such, FSIS does not have authority to review the data being collected.

In fact, any interruption of the industry’s data collection would have a negative impact on public health, Engeljohn said.

In a press release Tuesday morning, the consumer group Food & Water Watch (FWW) said that this email is evidence that USDA would permit the poultry industry to self-regulate on pathogen levels in chicken parts.

The National Chicken Council answered back, telling Food Safety News that the plan was not to self-regulate or replace upcoming USDA standards. The industry is just trying to get ahead of upcoming performance standards expected to be set by FSIS, said Tom Super, vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council.

The poultry industry has the most responsibility to reduce pathogen loads on chicken parts, but USDA needs to answer questions about how those pathogen loads might be enforced, said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at FWW. According to a 2012 UDSA report, the estimated national prevalence of Salmonella on chicken parts was 24 percent, while Campylobacter was 21 percent.

One concern FWW expressed was that the industry might be allowed to set its own standards for chicken parts. FSIS is currently expected to release performance standards on chicken parts in this year, though it already has Salmonella standards of 7.5 percent on whole chicken carcasses and 49 percent on ground poultry.

Corbo said that while it’s mainly the poultry industry’s responsibility to curb contamination rates, FSIS cannot relax on releasing its own standards.

“I have no problem with the poultry industry collecting data, but I want to know if this is going to be a substitute for setting FSIS performance standards,” Corbo told Food Safety News. “That’s my gripe.”

The government is still scheduled to roll out its performance standards this year, unaffected by the industry’s research, according to Super at the National Chicken Council.

“Let me be clear: this is not self-regulation,” Super told Food Safety News. “Nor is the industry setting its own performance standards for pathogen reduction on chicken parts.”

The data being collected by the poultry industry will be used to take a hard look at the process of cutting chicken into parts, Super said. It’s a way for the industry to prepare to meet or exceed whatever performance standards FSIS plans to set, he added.

“We are collectively and non-competitively exploring all options to reduce contamination throughout the process in order to provide the safest product possible to our consumers,” he said.

Corbo said that the internal email raised questions about transparency at FSIS. Consumer advocacy groups, including FWW, held their monthly meeting with FSIS on Jan. 15, just two days prior to Engeljohn’s email. At that point, the poultry industry’s plan had never been discussed at a meeting and no one from the groups had heard of it, Corbo said.

Due to government closures from inclement weather, FSIS representatives could not be reached at their offices on Tuesday.

Update:

On Wednesday morning, spokespeople for FSIS sent Food Safety News the following response:

“You saw Food and Water Watch’s press release alleging that the National Chicken Council’s plans to do their own sampling and set independent performance standards, and FSIS’ support of this action, somehow indicate a movement towards privatized inspection that will negatively impact public health. We wanted to be very clear and assure you that this is not at all true. As you know, reducing consumer exposure to Salmonella, especially in poultry products, is FSIS’ top priority this year. FSIS will continue with our plans to set performance standards for comminuted poultry and poultry parts, and to use our own testing in FSIS-regulated establishments to verify the standards that we have already put in place. These steps taken by the industry are entirely separate from and neither replace nor undermine FSIS’ control measures. Public health stands to benefit from the industry’s indication that they are taking our food safety goals seriously and potentially are adding their own layers of protection.

Our Salmonella Action Plan includes several items that would strengthen our sampling and enforcement strategies. We are in support of and would not deter an industry initiative geared towards meeting or exceeding the food safety goals laid out in the Salmonella Action Plan.”

© Food Safety News
  • Aaron Lavallee

    Dan, Lydia, James – the shutdown had no impact on the continuity of operations of our communications office – you have the cell phones of no less than five staff members – don’t hesitate to call to get the facts to help filter noise like this.

    You saw Food and Water Watch’s press release alleging
    that the National Chicken Council’s plans to do their own sampling and set
    independent performance standards, and FSIS’ support of this action, somehow
    indicate a movement towards privatized inspection that will negatively impact
    public health. We wanted to be very clear and assure you that this is not at all
    true. As you know, reducing consumer exposure to Salmonella, especially in
    poultry products, is FSIS’ top priority this year. FSIS will continue with our
    plans to set performance standards for comminuted poultry and poultry parts,
    and to use our own testing in FSIS-regulated establishments to verify the
    standards that we have already put in place. These steps taken by the industry
    are entirely separate from and neither replace nor undermine FSIS’ control
    measures. Public health stands to benefit from the industry’s indication that
    they are taking our food safety goals seriously and potentially are adding
    their own layers of protection.

    Our Salmonella Action Plan includes several items that would strengthen our
    sampling and enforcement strategies. We are in support of and would not deter
    an industry initiative geared towards meeting or exceeding the food safety
    goals laid out in the Salmonella Action Plan.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      “…filter noise like this”

      Concerns such as these are not “noise”. Considering times in the past when government regulatory bodies have too easily deferred to the industries they’re supposed to regulate, these types of concerns are justified.

      It isn’t “noise” to be concerned about how conflicts between plans are resolved, or to be concerned about the industry’s processes having undue influence over FSIS processes.

      Don’t trivialize people’s concerns because of your arrogant assumption you know what’s right, and what is, or is, not a valid concern.

      BTW, I don’t see a link to the press release in the story. It’s below

      http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/pressreleases/usda-to-permit-poultry-industry-to-self-regulate-on-pathogen-levels-in-chicken-parts/

    • JAndrewsFSN

      Thanks, Aaron.

      I had spoken with another FSIS spokesperson earlier Tuesday morning about a different story and was informed that the offices were closed and it would be better to speak with someone the next day. Perhaps unwisely, I made an assumption that it would be the same case with this story.

    • Oginikwe

      If what you say is true, why the need for the email to you from the NCC?
      If what you say is true, why are you not pushing for the authority you need to review their collected data?

  • BB

    Do not believe the NCC. They have every intention of trying to influence FSIS before they set perforance standards for parts. When the NCC says “jump” -FSIS says “how high?”

  • BB

    I meant “performance”