Tomorrow, the Senate will finally hold a nomination hearing for Dr. Mindy Brashears to become the highest ranking food safety official in the federal government, a post that has remained vacant for nearly five years. Dr. àBrashears’ scientific credentials are solid, but she should face some tough questions about how she will address longstanding challenges at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

Just Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, FSIS began web-posting new data on Salmonella contamination in poultry parts — legs, breasts, and wings — and in ground turkey and chicken. The data are not encouraging. Across the industry, over a quarter of the plants processing chicken parts are failing to meet FSIS’s Salmonella performance standards. At the country’s fifth largest chicken producer, 75 percent of the plants are failing the standard. The widespread noncompliance calls into question whether the proper incentives are in place to protect consumers from Salmonella in meat and poultry.

The data released Friday adds to a mounting body of evidence that the U.S. regulatory approach to Salmonella is outdated. Some in the industry have taken the position that all raw meat and poultry is safe, even when contaminated with a Salmonella strain associated with an ongoing outbreak, so long as consumers act responsibly in the kitchen. Readers of this publication know otherwise. Virulent strains of Salmonella cause outbreaks precisely because the bacteria overcome what are otherwise “safe” handling and cooking practices.

Consumers should not have to wear a hazmat suit to prepare dinner.

That might seem hyperbolic but ask yourself, how would you handle raw chicken that you knew to be contaminated with the multi-drug resistant Salmonella Infantis strain that has resulted in 92 confirmed illnesses and 21 hospitalizations, according to CDC’s latest count? Or raw turkey contaminated with the Salmonella Reading strain that has, so far, been linked to 164 confirmed illnesses, 63 hospitalizations, and one death? Most consumers are familiar with the basics of sound food safety practices—clean, cook, separate, chill—but slip-ups are common. A recent FSIS observational study actually simulated pathogen contamination with a tracer microorganism and found that 6 percent of participants preparing a meal in a test kitchen failed to wash their hands with sufficient rigor to avoid cross-contaminating a salad after handling turkey burgers. These were people that knew they were being observed!

The upshot is that food safety education, while critical, can only go so far. Consumers deserve protection against dangerous Salmonella, particularly when it is linked to an outbreak. Yet under the current rules, companies may knowingly sell raw meat and poultry that harbors outbreak Salmonella strains. What’s worse, while FSIS has sometimes discovered through its testing that a company’s products are contaminated with an outbreak strain, it refuses to make that information public.

A better approach to Salmonella is possible.

For over a decade, Salmonella infections in the U.S. have remained more or less constant, causing more economic damage than any other foodborne pathogen — an estimated $3.7 billion each year in medical costs alone, according to USDA researchers. By contrast, the incidence of salmonellosis in European Union countries has declined dramatically during the same period, from approximately 200,000 cases reported in 2004 to less than half of that number in recent years.

The U.S. can similarly reduce foodborne illness with common sense rules that recognize the role of Salmonella as an adulterant in raw meat and poultry. A new report from my organization, Consumer Federation of America, examines five different ways that FSIS could regulate Salmonella as an adulterant. As Carl Custer wrote in Food Safety News earlier this month, such a classification is warranted for the same reasons that FSIS has treated E. coli O157: H7 as an adulterant in ground beef since 1994, namely, foods contaminated with Salmonella cause severe illness when subject to normal cooking and handling practices. Not all Salmonella contamination poses an equal threat, however, and so some divergence from the strategy to contain E. coli O157: H7 may be appropriate.

The CFA report considers the costs and benefits of federal regulators treating a meat and poultry product as “adulterated” if it is contaminated with:

1) Any Salmonella at all, the approach taken by Sweden and a small number of other Northern European countries;

2) Particular Salmonella serotypes, such as those most associated with human illness, an approach similar to that taken by the European Union;

3) Salmonella with a specific genetic profile that matches that of an ongoing outbreak, such as the Salmonella Reading and Salmonella Infantis strains causing the current outbreaks linked to turkey and chicken, respectively;

4) Salmonella resistant to certain medically important antibiotics, an approach championed by some U.S. lawmakers; or

5) High loads of Salmonella bacteria, an enumeration focus that has some support among the industry.

The U.S. may not transition anytime soon to a full out blanket prohibition of Salmonella in raw meat and poultry, à la Sweden, but policymakers should explore the available options, and weigh the costs of industry compliance against the expected public health benefits. CFA’s report is meant to facilitate that discussion.

In the meantime, FSIS can make a significant contribution to public health by simply sharing the results of its regulatory testing data. Thus far, the agency has offered only incendiary rhetoric in response to calls for increased transparency. Hopefully, Dr. Brashears will offer consumers more assurance in her testimony tomorrow. (WC 886)

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