The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)  should carry on with its work to reduce pathogens in meat and poultry, but first, the agency needs to improve documentation, add some timelines to its tasks and check on the effectiveness of on-farm practices.

Those three new recommendations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO),  the auditing, evaluation, and investigative service of Congress, were released on Wednesday in a study that again reviewed USDA’s work to reduce pathogens in meat and poultry products. The GAO’s most recent report on the topic was in 2014.

“The U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, but foodborne illness — such as salmonella poisoning — remains a common problem,” according to the 49-page GAO report.

“For some meat and poultry products such as ground beef, there are standards for how much harmful bacteria USDA can find when testing. However, some common products such as turkey breasts and pork chops don’t have such standards. It’s unclear how USDA decides which products to consider for new standards. Also, we found that some of USDA’s food safety standards are outdated, with no deadlines for revision.”

The new GAO report says the FSIS administrator should:

  • Document the agency’s process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis on which such decisions should be made. 
  • Set time frames for determining what pathogen standards or additional policies are needed to address pathogens in beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts and ground pork.
  • Include available information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices to reduce the level of pathogens as part of finalizing agency guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs.

In a four-page letter, USDA’s Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Carmen Rottenberg concurred with GAO’s recommendations. She also provided additional perspective on the issues raised in the review. FSIS has no pre-harvest, on-farm jurisdiction.  

The agency is providing guidelines on the reduction of Salmonella in market hogs based on the available science. Rottenberg also said FSIS lacks mandatory recall authority, and with Salmonella and Campylobacter not ordinarily adulterants in raw product, it would not be recalled in normal circumstances.

GAO revisited FSIS progress at the behest of three Senate Democrats — Dianne Feinstein of California, Richard Durbin of Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. They’ve sent the new report with four of their own questions in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, asking for a response by May 7.

The Senators want to know if FSIS has developed pathogen standards for such products as turkey breasts and pork chops, what the timeline and process for new standards is, and when the agency will issue on-farm guidelines for controlling pathogens in hogs. Finally, they want to know how FSIS is using whole genome sequencing of foodborne pathogens.

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