Citizen watchdog groups are joining forces with victims of foodborne illness in a petition seeking “enforceable standards” for slaughterhouses when it comes to Salmonella contamination of poultry.

Four groups have come together to file the petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those groups are the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports (CR), and Stop Foodborne Illness (STOP). Several individual victims of foodborne illness are also among the petitioners.

“Consumers want to be able to trust that the food they eat is safe,” said Amanda Craten, a petitioner and member of the STOP board of directors. Her 18-month-old son was seriously injured and permanently disabled as a result of Salmonella-contaminated chicken. 

“My family wants nothing more than to ensure the USDA is using the best possible tools to keep others from suffering what we have suffered.”

The petitioners want to lay the responsibility of cleaner chicken at the feet of slaughterhouse businesses. They want those operating at that point in the poultry production process to make sure clean birds are entering and exiting their plants. 

The petition does not seek to impose new regulations for all foodborne pathogens, but only the strains of Salmonella that are a danger to human health. The groups are also concerned about levels of Campylobacter.

“We have seen little progress in actually reducing the number of people getting sick from Salmonella or Campylobacter,” said CSPI Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher. “A big reason for that is the USDA has yet to take full advantage of the best current technology and science to control the foodborne disease from farm to fork.”

The petition asks the agency to require slaughterhouses to control risks in their supply chains by following best practices for food safety, saying those practices will help reduce specific strains of Salmonella that make people sick. The petitioners are also asking the agency to require slaughterhouses to adopt science-based tools to prevent animals from being infected by these bacteria on the farm, including by vaccinating live poultry and monitoring farms for the presence of dangerous bacteria. Such practices have been in effect for years in Europe, where they helped bring about substantial declines in foodborne illness rates, according to a statement from CSPI leaders.

“At the start of the last decade, USDA and other federal agencies USDA and other federal agencies committed to meeting the Healthy People 2020 goals, which aimed to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans, including by reducing the incidence of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter,” according to the CSPI statement. “Yet, at the close of 2020, progress on both fronts has been dismal: incidence of illness from both types of bacteria has remained as high, if not higher than it was at the start of the decade.”

Salmonella and Campylobacter accounted for more than 70 percent of foodborne illnesses from bacteria or parasites tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network in the U.S. in 2019.

Additional efforts
In addition to the advocates that filed the petition Monday, other groups have called for similar changes in poultry regulations. In 2019, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a committee of scientific experts that advises USDA, recommended that the agency consider pre-harvest controls and the development of approaches that prevent Salmonella strains of public health concern from contaminating raw poultry products. 

“A science-based approach is imperative to identifying the measures and controls that will help reduce foodborne illness rates linked to Salmonella and Campylobacter,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, and former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety. “We must leverage FSIS’ public health expertise, available science, and industry best practices in order to fully protect consumers.”

Also, the current petition comes nearly a year after a petition filed by food safety attorney Bill Marler on behalf of consumer groups, which called to ban 31 “outbreak serotypes” of Salmonella in meat and poultry. The Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports were also signatories to that petition. 

The petition filed Monday goes further than the Marler petition by laying out a specific process for USDA to create enforceable standards to target and ultimately eliminate priority Salmonella serotypes, while also addressing risks from Campylobacter.

“For too long, progress on reducing infections caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter in meat and poultry has stalled,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at Consumer Federation of America. “The science and technology available to reduce foodborne illness has advanced by leaps and bounds, but USDA food safety regulations have not kept up. That needs to change.”

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