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Controlling Pathogens: Options and a Recommendation

Opinion

My previous articles have outlined that certain strains of Salmonella are virulent and pathogenic to humans. As such, they are adulterants by definition of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts, even in raw meat or poultry products. These pathogenic strains can be identified by their pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) profile or other genetic assays.

Epidemiology and scientific research demonstrate that ordinary consumers are incapable of handling raw meat or poultry contaminated with these virulent salmonellae; thus they are “ordinarily” injurious to health. There are precedents; the The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) currently has regulations that prohibit meat or poultry products with certain pathogens from entering commerce. In some cases, these contaminated products can enter commerce after cooking in an inspected establishment.

USDA/FSIS successfully applied those precedents to Shiga toxin containing Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) in ground beef and has expanded the principle. USDA/FSIS currently has policies linking residues to grower-producers with repeat violations. That policy can, and should, be applied to meat or poultry products contaminated with identified virulent pathogens. Epidemiology has listed Salmonellosis as the deadliest foodborne disease over the past three decades. Scientists have written about “The Salmonella Problem” for more than a half-century.  It is long past time to act.

Some options

  1. Treat all raw meat and poultry products: In addition to cooking and producing “value added” ready-to-eat products, there are other methods such as high-pressure processing and irradiation. High-pressure processing has come of age in the past decade and is used commercially by several companies. For instance, Cargill reported in December 2011 that it had implemented high-pressure processing to reduce Salmonella in its ground turkey. Irradiation, however, remains controversial in the U.S.
  2. Require consumers to be licensed before they can purchase raw meat or poultry products: Many jurisdictions already require retail food establishments to have a person on hand who has successfully received a safe food handling certificate. Extending this to all persons would be a political “hot potato.”
  3. Continue to push for lower levels of pathogens on raw meat or poultry products: FSIS has done that for poultry with the new Salmonella Performance Standards and adding a standard for Campylobacter. And, yet, the recent outbreak from Salmonella Heidelberg was traced back to an establishment that met and exceeded the new standard. The standards for meat have not been tightened.
  4. Continue the status quo and let the incompetent suffer the consequences: While seeming cruel, it would provide continuing incentives for educational efforts such as those at CDC, FSIS and FDA. It would also not impose a greater burden on producers and growers, and, thus, raise the cost of food.

There are no easy answers, but there are precedents. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations prescribes keeping some potentially hazardous raw meat and poultry products that could be made safe by cooking out of the hands of ordinary consumers. In 9 CFR 311 and 9 CFR 381K (381.79-381.93), are lists of carcass defects that must be prevented from entering commerce and consumer exposure.  The Meat Inspection Regulations, 9 CFR 315, permit some carcass defects to be cooked in an official establishment but not in consumers’ kitchens. The same could be required of meat and poultry containing known human pathogens. It has been done for STEC in certain beef products and for Salmonella in many products under FDA’s jurisdiction.

In a January 10, 2014, article in Food Safety News, reporter Lydia Zuraw wrote, “An agency source told Food Safety News that although some have argued the number of illnesses would have justified action, the law would not have supported it solely because of Salmonella contamination. Zuraw then quoted the source: “The agency is unable to make regulations accomplish goals that the underlying law prohibits us from doing. … The statutory criteria and the court decisions that dictate FSIS’ authority on Salmonella cannot be simply overturned through regulatory action or approving a petition.” Hanlon’s Razor seems applicable; the FSIS source is either ignorant of the law or repeating outdated political opinions.

Recommendation

FSIS can, and should, declare Salmonella strains linked to CDC outbreaks as adulterants. That these strains are linked to outbreaks demonstrates that they are “ordinarily” injurious to consumers. CDC currently identifies outbreak strains by their PFGE profile.

Currently FSIS runs PFGE on all Salmonella isolates from its testing programs and uploads the results to the CDC PulseNet database. Through PulseNet, the agencies may quickly identify any Salmonella strain from a product linked to an outbreak. Whole genome sequencing will offer greater specificity in the near future.

FSIS can, and should, adopt the current policy for controlling multiple residue violations (FSIS NOTICE 52-13 and “Compliance Guide For Residue Prevention 2013”) to controlling these pathogens. The program would work the same as the residue control program that has been in effect for decades: When linked to an outbreak strain, the establishment’s product now has that pathogen as a “hazard reasonably likely to occur” under the HACCP regulation, 9 CFR 417. Thus, the establishment’s HACCP program would hold future product until it can either certify that its product does not contain the outbreak strain or the identified product has been designated for a bactericidal treatment in an Official Establishment.

When FSIS takes samples for Salmonella testing, the establishment would have the option to identify the producer or producers represented in that sampled lot. Identifying the source of the outbreak strains would lower the establishment’s economic risk by facilitating the future isolation of the producer’s animals from the rest of the establishment’s products. Selecting out positive animal producers would reduce the chance of recalls of adulterated product. It would also enable slaughterhouses to implement procedures such as scheduling positive animals at the end of shifts and designating their products for treatment.

The probable outcomes would be that processors would stop buying animals from implicated producers and require that producer to implement programs to eradicate the pathogen, or the producers’ animals would be processed at the end of a shift and sent for cooking or another bactericidal process. By putting the burden on the producer, the source of the adulterating pathogen, it will give producers an economic incentive to begin controlling human pathogens. A side benefit of eliminating outbreak strains in production facilities would be to lessen the exposure of these strains to the environment, including fields, orchards, and waterways.

Some producers currently use rapid assays for animal pathogens. Faster and more specific assays can enable producers to test their animals before submitting them for slaughter. Examples of these assays abound in trade shows and the scientific literature. For instance: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21908327 and http://www.gapoultrylab.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Waltman%20AVMA%202012.pdf  

It is long past time for FSIS to implement the acts, adopt current regulations and policy, and declare those virulent pathogenic strains of Salmonella as adulterants in raw meat and poultry products. The burden for control should be upon the producers. While slaughter establishments can reduce the pathogen load, they do not eliminate the load. USDA’s Agriculture Research Service RRRC has averred for more than two decades that what goes into a poultry slaughter facility comes out. In a recent paper, Berghaus, et al, wrote, “In conclusion, Salmonella and Campylobacter prevalences and loads on the farm were significantly associated with prevalences and loads of the same pathogens at processing. Consequently, management practices that reduce pathogens on the farm would be expected to reduce contamination at processing.”

Declaring outbreak strains as adulterants would provide an economic incentive to control them and reflect the Congressional statement of findings in 21 USC 451 and 602: “Unwholesome, adulterated, or misbranded … products impair the effective regulation of … products in interstate or foreign commerce, are injurious to the public welfare, destroy markets for wholesome, not adulterated, and properly labeled and packaged … products, and result in sundry losses to … producers and processors of … products, as well as injury to consumers.”

Reference:

Berghaus, Roy D., Stephan G. Thayer, Bibiana F. Law, Rita M. Mild, Charles L. Hofacre and Randall S. Singer. 2013 Enumeration of Salmonella and Campylobacter spp. in Environmental Farm Samples and Processing Plant Carcass Rinses from Commercial Broiler Chicken Flocks. Appl. Env. Microl.79:4106-4114

© Food Safety News
  • Sam Onella

    And what are the costs associated with NOT “virtually eliminating” Salmonella from chicken. “CDC estimates that Salmonella bacteria cause more than 1.2 million illnesses each year in the United States, resulting in more than 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.” It is infuriating to have the FDA voice grave concern and a need to act on Salmonella as a Bioterrorism Agent, but not an adulterant (http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/fda-proposes-new-rules-to-defend-against-food-terrorism-140328?news=852789) !?!?

  • Oginikwe

    “These birds, who enjoy eating bugs and dirt, are known to carry a lot more Salmonella, etc. pathogens.”
    Do you have a citation for that information?

  • BB

    Well said Carl.