The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) presented an installment of its Virtual National Policy Conference series, titled “A New Day at USDA for Food Safety?” on Tuesday.

Speakers included Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI); and Mike Robach, CEO of the Robach Group and former vice president of corporate food safety at Cargill.

The name Mike Robach sounded familiar, so I ran a quick search of my desktop and stumbled upon Marler Clark’s 2020 Salmonella Petition. As mentioned in the Petition, Robach, in his former role at Cargill, partnered with The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2014 to develop a set of recommendations to “improve the food safety oversight system for meat and poultry” and to “transform the current system into one that is more science and risk-based.” The project came after Cargill was implicated in Salmonella outbreaks in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The executive summary of the 2014 stakeholders’ meeting states, “Cargill Inc. and the Pew Charitable Trusts identified the following reasons for believing that the time was ripe for this initiative: 

  1. Public health-based: While there has been some progress, meat and poultry products remain significant vehicles for foodborne illnesses in the United States;
  2. Science-based: The inspection system developed more than 100 years ago does not employ the most science-based means to protect consumers from pathogenic contamination; and
  3. Fiscal: Taxpayers spend $1 billion each year on an inspection system that cannot effectively assure the desirable level of safety.”

Now, seven years after this initiative, Robach, Sorscher and Griffin expressed similar concerns at the CFA Conference. They say USDA’s meat and poultry inspections system, which was implemented to combat animal disease, not to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, more than a century ago, is outdated and “archaic.” They also say chicken-associated Salmonella and Campylobacter are now responsible for an estimated 635,000 illnesses each year in the United States. Salmonella remains the leading cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the United States, followed by Campylobacter, with the incidence of Salmonella illnesses remaining virtually unchanged in the past 20 years. 

Each panelist also offered potential solutions. Robach recommended that the USDA enhance the role of risk-assessment in its oversight system — possibly by creating a new, independent risk-assessment agency — and update its current inspections program to account for these varying risks rather than keep its current “one-size-fits-all” program. He also suggested the agency implement preharvest interventions and update the labels on meat and poultry products to reflect safe handling practices. 

Griffin proposed a multi-pronged approach involving “farm measures,” such as hygiene and vaccination; “slaughterhouse methods,” such as modernized performance standards; and “retail methods,” such as buying agreements and industry standards. She said France and the United Kingdom have markedly decreased Salmonella infections by using vaccination of poultry, targeting of particular serotypes, hygiene measures on farms, legislation and investigation. Similarly, Sorscher advocated for “enforceable, risk-based standards that target Salmonella types of greatest public health concern and Campylobacter.” 

On Jan. 19, 2020, Marler Clark LLP submitted the above-mentioned Salmonella Petition, on behalf of CFA and others, requesting that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service declare the following “Outbreak Serotypes,” considered to be serotypes of public health concern, to be adulterants in meat and poultry products: Salmonella Agona, Anatum, Berta, Blockely, Braenderup, Derby, Dublin, Enteritidis, Hadar, Heidelberg, I 4,[5],12:i:-, Infantis, Javiana, Litchfield, Mbandaka, Mississippi, Montevideo, Muenchen, Newport, Oranienburg, Panama, Poona, Reading, Saintpaul, Sandiego, Schwarzengrund, Senftenberg, Stanley, Thompson, Typhi and Typhimurium.

About the author: Ilana Korchia is a law clerk at the Marler Clark law firm in Seattle. She is a second-year law student at Seattle University School of Law. Korchia earned a bachelor’s degree in food science from the University of Florida in 2019. She has previous experience working as a public affairs intern for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and as a laboratory research assistant for the University of Florida.

Editor’s note: Bill Marler of Marler Clark LLP is publisher of Food Safety News.

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