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.”