– OPINION –
This past week, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that it will begin publishing genetic data on the pathogens that federal inspectors find in poultry slaughterhouses. The policy is long overdue. While a relatively modest reform, the disclosures will make the industry more accountable for food safety by shining a light on the supply chains that feed into slaughterhouses. Incredibly, these supply chains fall outside of food safety regulators’ jurisdiction, in contrast to those of most other foods, from seafood to celery. This regulatory void puts a premium on transparency.
Until now, FSIS has only released genetic data on pathogens in response to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. Typically those responses entail years-long delays. Under the new policy, the agency will disclose its data on a quarterly basis.
Why does the data matter? Because it reveals which companies have been selling product contaminated with dangerous bacteria, such as the multi-drug resistant Salmonella infantis strain that has sickened thousands of people each year since 2017. Public health authorities have found the infantis strain in dozens of chicken processing plants. How it got there remains shrouded in mystery, but the most plausible theory lays the blame at the feet of the poultry breeding industry.
Just two companies, Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tyson Foods dominate the poultry breeding industry. These two firms provide virtually all of the breeding stock to the otherwise vertically integrated chicken companies, or “integrators,” the largest 10 of which accounted for 79 percent of the chicken produced in the United States in 2015. Because Salmonella bacteria is vertically transmitted from breeding stock to the “broilers” raised for food, even the most rigorous food safety program at the integrator level may prove ineffective. In other words, chicken companies may be failing to prevent the spread of virulent Salmonella, linked to ongoing foodborne illness outbreaks, in part because these pathogens originate “from centralized origins at the pinnacle of poultry production.”
Disclosing genetic data will illuminate this dynamic. And although it may not provide a quick fix, it will add support to the mounting calls for reform, from both civil society and industry.
The problem is not complicated. Current law does not prevent a poultry company from selling meat contaminated with high loads of the most virulent, antibiotic-resistant superbug. Instead, USDA sets standards for how often a plant’s product can test positive for any strain of Salmonella. Thanks to a 2001 federal appellate court decision, even these “performance standards” are voluntary; USDA simply discloses on its website which plants are in compliance. But even plants following the rules are free to knowingly ship out product contaminated with dangerous Salmonella. Rather than performance standards, consumers need a product standard that provides an assurance that every package of meat and poultry they buy is reasonably safe. Not sterile, just safe.
Defenders of the status quo tend to blame the consumer for persistent rates of foodborne illness. We should continue to invest in food safety education, and collaborations like the Partnership for Food Safety Education deserve credit for innovating new approaches to change food handling behaviors. But consumers should not be expected to follow safe handling and cooking instructions with the precision of a NASA scientist. Despite considerable resources and efforts dedicated to food safety education, for the past two decades, Americans have fallen ill from Salmonella-contaminated food at a depressingly constant rate.
Consumers deserve better, and FSIS’s new policy of disclosing genetic data is a needed step in the right direction. To be sure, much work remains to be done at the agency. FSIS has only just begun studying how it can move to product-based pathogen standards for poultry. Recently proposed pathogen standards for pork parts — the second most important food source of salmonellosis, behind chicken — continue to treat all Salmonella serotypes equally. The agency’s pathogen disclosure policy could be improved as well. Under the current plan, genetic sequencing data will not be available until at least four months after an FSIS inspector collects a sample, even though the information is produced in a matter of days.
But the new policy gives hope for optimism. Since the days of Upton Sinclair, greater transparency has increased consumers’ demand for better food safety protections. With a little luck, stories will emerge from the data disclosed by FSIS that serve as a catalyst for reforms, reforms that finally bring down the rate of foodborne Salmonella illness. With an estimated one million Americans sickened by Salmonella each year — many of whom, like 18-month old Noah Craten, suffer permanent injuries— that progress cannot come soon enough.
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