Trying to cut the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated raw poultry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday announced stricter standards to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and turkey.
The new baseline standards take effect in July.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FS!S) estimates that two years of enforcing the tougher standards should result in about 5,000 fewer Campylobacter infections and 20,000 fewer Salmonella infections.
According to an FSIS news release, poultry slaughtering establishments have made significant strides in reducing the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter, but there remains too high a risk of consumers being exposed to these pathogens through broiler chickens and turkey.
“These improved standards will drive the industry to do better,” Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said in the statement. “They are tough but achievable. And when fully implemented, they will prevent tens of thousands of Americans from getting sick.”
Under the revised standards, no more 7.5 percent of raw chickens can test positive for Salmonella. The previous tolerance was 20 percent. Under the inaugural standards for Campylobacter reduction, no more than 10.4 percent of raw chickens and no more than 0.79 percent of raw turkeys sampled can test positive for the pathogen.
The National Chicken Council said the new baseline standard for raw chicken is in line with industry performance. In the third quarter of 2010, the industry group said, an average of 7.4 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for Salmonella.
Food & Water Watch, the Washington D.C.-based consumer and environmental advocacy group, said the previous Salmonella standard has been in place too long — since 1998. “We urge the agency to regularly revise the salmonella standard and new campylobacter standard in the future,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director, in a news release.
In addition, the group said it was concerned that FSIS won’t post the results of Campylobacter test results by plant, and also that the agency’s new Salmonella “report card” will not be as transparent as the one now used on its website.
“In fact, we urge the agency to post the results from all plants — those that fail to meet performance standards, as well as those that marginally pass and those that exceed the standard. A pass/fail listing is not good enough,” Hauter said.
Finally, Food & Water Watch expressed frustration that FSIS does not have the legal authority to shut down plants or take other action against companies that fail to meet the performance standards.
Hauter said, “It is past time for the agency to seek legislation to make these microbial performance standards enforceable.”
A copy of the new guidelines is available here.