After two nationwide Salmonella outbreaks linked to ground turkey sickened at least 148 people last year, the federal government has decided to implement stricter pathogen controls for raw ground poultry products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced Wednesday in a policy statement that all manufacturers of raw ground turkey or chicken foods must update their pathogen control plans in order to address potential dangers highlighted by the 2011 outbreaks. These plans – called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) – are designed to minimize contamination by targeting the riskiest parts of the production process and implementing safety measures at these points. All meat and poultry plants have been required to have a HACCP plan in place since 1996. FSIS says it will begin verifying that the plans have been updated starting in 90 days. The agency also announced that it is expanding its Salmonella testing program to include “comminuted” poultry – chicken or turkey that has been mechanically separated or deboned and then further chopped, flaked, minced or somehow reduced in particle size. Previously, only ground poultry was tested for Salmonella. And in a further crackdown on this food category, FSIS says it will soon test comminuted chicken and turkey products for Campylobacter – another problem pathogen for poultry. FSIS said it is basing these policy decisions on lessons learned from the 2011 outbreaks. Between late December of 2010 and March of 2011, an outbreak of Salmonella Hadar linked to turkey burgers sickened 12 people, three of whom were hospitalized. Jenny-O, the maker of the contaminated burgers, recalled 54,960 pounds of potentially contaminated product. In a post-outbreak investigation, FSIS found that the cooking instructions for the turkey burger were not sufficient to guarantee that pathogens would be killed in the cooking process. Inspectors also discovered problems with the company’s production process. No pathogen control methods were in place – other than keeping product cold – and equipment was not being washed between each use, allowing for cross-contamination between different lots of product. While the Salmonella Hadar outbreak was ending, another ground turkey outbreak was beginning. Between February and September of 2011, 136 people from 34 states were sickened after eating ground turkey from Cargill Meat Solutions. A reported 37 people were hospitalized as a result of their illnesses and one died, according to CDC’s final outbreak report. Cargill recalled more than 36 million pounds of the implicated raw turkey product. Samples taken from the plant where the ground turkey was processed revealed the outbreak strain of bacteria in poultry product and its surrounding environment. FSIS found that mechanically deboned and separated product from the facility were not consistently given an antimicrobial treatment and tested positive more often for Salmonella than other raw poultry product at the facility. The agency says these two outbreaks and subsequent plant investigation point to a need for industry to reexamine its food safety practices. “Because the recent outbreaks discussed in this notice were associated with many individual consumers in multiple States, the occurrence of these outbreaks could represent a change in the sanitary conditions involved in the manufacture of these products and is a change that could affect the hazard analysis…for comminuted poultry products,” writes FSIS. And while turkey was the source of both of last year’s outbreaks, the agency says chicken is of equal concern. “Historically, ground chicken products have the highest Salmonella spp. percent positive rates of all FSIS-regulated product classes,” notes the policy announcement. FSIS offers a series of recommendations for industry based on lessons from the 2011 outbreaks. “Establishments should evaluate the adequacy of their sanitation procedures for processing equipment, including grinders, blenders, pipes, and other components and surfaces in contact with the product,” says the agency. Other recommendations include:

  • Slaughter procedures should be designed to minimize exterior contamination before blood is drained from the bird, and spillage of digestive tract content should be avoided as much as possible, advises the document.
  • Companies should validate cooking instructions and consider lotting practices that minimize contact between lots so that they cannot contaminate one another.
  • Ground poultry processors should consider requiring suppliers to show that they have used a Salmonella intervention step.

“Such process control procedures may be instrumental in reducing the impact of potential future product recalls,” says FSIS of the potential impact of an updated HACCP plan. Industry representatives said they are still reviewing the document and intend to submit comments. A representative from the National Chicken Council told Food Safety News Wednesday evening that the group was currently “reviewing the details of the notice.” “We’re reviewing it right now and anticipate submitting comments in the future” said a spokesperson for the American Meat Institute. FSIS says it intends to issue a guidance to industry on minimizing Salmonella in ground poultry in the near future.