Two consumer groups want to see government and industry do something instead of nothing when it comes to keeping certain bacteria out of Americans’ diets via contaminated poultry.

The groups’ leaders say they don’t want to dictate what the regulators and industry do, they just want results, which they say can be had by looking at current science and lessons learned in the beef industry.

As far as the people at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Stop Foodborne Illness are concerned, there is no prevention step in the poultry farm-to-fork chain at the point where live birds step across the threshold into slaughter facilities. The two groups have joined to file comments with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding a related pending request that the federal government declare Salmonella an adulterant in poultry. That action would make it a crime to sell poultry contaminated with the bacteria.

It all comes down to supplier verification, said Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness. 

“This stuff isn’t new,” Baum told Food Safety News, “it just hasn’t been applied to the poultry industry.

“This is about supplier verification. We’re missing the first piece. When live birds come in (to slaughter facilities) there is no testing.”

Baum said as a consumer she didn’t know about the lack of a food safety control when it came to the raw material for consumer level poultry — the live birds. 

It basically comes down to one of two things to provide the level of food safety the groups are seeking. 

1. Either buyers require that suppliers of live birds test and document the condition of the birds before accepting them at slaughter plants; or

2. The government steps in and imposes requirements on everybody.

Generally speaking industry doesn’t like what’s behind door No. 2. But it never has.

“There’s nothing revolutionary about asking businesses to ensure they are mitigating the risks from dangerous pathogens that could be arriving on raw materials,” CSPI’s Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher told Food Safety News.

“Supplier verification programs and testing raw materials for hazards are widely accepted best practices in food safety, and are already required for foods regulated by the FDA. These measures strengthen incentives for suppliers to implement effective safety practices, ensuring that food safety is prioritized from farm to fork.”

There are several approaches that could work and several may be needed, said Stop’s CEO.

Baum said a control/prevention step at the slaughterhouse door would minimize the extent to which live birds entering their facilities are contaminated with certain serotypes of Salmonella and Campylobacter. She said consumers should care because it’s all about what they are consuming.

But it’s not up to consumers to dictate to government or industry, she said.

“It’s not for Stop to determine what the test is, that’s what a (preventive control plan) is for and it may look different for different facilities,” Baum said.

What both CSPI and Stop want is action in line with 2020 science instead of the 1996 version of the poultry safety framework that is still in use. Sorscher said contemporary knowledge about how disease spreads from farms into our food system should have already spurred change. She said USDA should work with stakeholders to ensure that harmful pathogens are controlled on the farm, so that sick animals will not spread disease to humans through the food supply.

Baum said the organizations had discussed the comments they filed on behalf of consumers with Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears, who is USDA’s top food safety official. The organizations’ leadership volunteered to collaborate with the agency and industry.

“We’d like to see USDA pull the stakeholders together on this,” said Baum.

Among those stakeholders is a Stop board member and mother of a food poisoning victim. Baum said she represents all consumers who have a right to safe food.

“My 18-month-old son was seriously injured and permanently disabled as a result of Salmonellacontaminated chicken,” said Amanda Craten in a statement from STOP and CSPI.

“My family wants nothing more than to support the work of those in USDA, the poultry industry, and the public health community who share our goal of preventing others from suffering what we have suffered.”  

The comments filed by Stop Foodborne Illness and CSPI are in response to a petition asking the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to declare Salmonella serotypes associated with illness outbreaks to be adulterants under the meat and poultry inspection laws.

In a joint statement about their comments the organizations praised previous work by the FSIS. In 2015, FSIS made extensive recommendations for poultry growers to improve pre-harvest food safety practices and to implement interventions aimed specifically at reducing contamination of live birds with Salmonella and Campylobacter, according to CSPI and Stop.  

In 2019, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods recommended FSIS consider serotype-specific pre-harvest controls and the development of approaches that exclude Salmonella serotypes of public health concern from raw poultry products. 

“Some poultry companies are reportedly using sophisticated microbial mapping, vaccines, and other modern tools to control hazards in their pre-harvest operations,” according to the joint statement.  

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)