PITTSBURGH, PA — Whether you call it a baby step or a significant stride, the federal government is taking action to clean up the chicken people in America eat.

With an announcement today the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said it will be declaring all strains of Salmonella an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products.

“It is an important step because for the first time we have declared Salmonella to be an adulterant,” Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety for FSIS, told Food Safety News. “But we are not stopping there. We are developing a comprehensive strategy.”

That strategy will eventually look at all chicken in the United States that is under the jurisdiction of FSIS. The proposed control for raw breaded and stuffed chicken is expected to lead to Salmonella controls for most chicken products as they enter the domain of slaughterhouses. The USDA does not have jurisdiction over the production of poultry before that point.

Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler and a group of individuals and consumer advocates have been requesting for two years that the FSIS declare 31 serotypes of Salmonella on chicken to be adulterants, thus making it illegal to sell chicken contaminated with them. The groups signing the petition were Rick Schiller, Steven Romes, the Porter Family, Food & Water Watch, the Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Reports. 

Monday Marler said the step with the raw, breaded and stuffed chicken products is a start, but one he believes should have been undertaken faster and broader. He wants all chicken to be required to be free of the 31 types of Salmonella that most commonly cause human illnesses.

“It’s like the old story of a camel sticking its nose under the side of the tent. Eventually, the whole camel is in the tent,” Marler said, predicting that the USDA and FSIS will continue to move toward declaring salmonella an adulterant in more and more types of chicken.

Eskin admits it’s a big tent, and entry must be taken in a measured and wise fashion. She said one reason the FSIS is beginning with raw breaded and stuffed chicken is that it is one of the most confusing products for consumers.

“These products appear cooked, but they are heat-treated only to set the batter or breading and the product contains raw poultry. Continual efforts to improve the product labeling have not been effective at reducing consumer illnesses,” Eskin said.

In fact, such products have been implicated in 14 outbreaks since 1998.

The proposed regulation, which Eskin said she expected to be published in October with public comment sessions set for November, would determine the selected chicken products to be deemed adulterated and therefore not fit for sale if they have 1 colony forming unit (CFU) of Salmonella per gram. The type of Salmonella would not matter.

Eskin said with about 1.35 million known cases of Salmonella infection overall every year in the United States, chicken is disproportionately responsible with at least 25 percent of the infections coming from chicken.

The numbers have not been changing for a number of years. Eskin said she has been in office for about a year and a half and the problem has been in front of her since the beginning of her tenure. She declined to comment on what or why previous leaders have done regarding the situation. But, she said the agency has “dozens and dozens and dozens” of people working on the situation now. People from administrators to laboratory specialists to inspectors in the field and support staff for all of them.

She wants to see a proposed rule published and ready for final rule-making by next year. The final rulemaking process can be lengthy, but Eskin said she is optimistic.

She outlined her thinking way of thinking about it as a three-step process — in reverse.

3. Have a final version of product standards that are enforceable;

2. Review and revise as necessary Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans with clear direction;

  1. Incentivize people to reduce contamination. 

“We are not trying to impose pre-slaughter practices or regulations,” she said, being mindful of her agency’s boundaries. “Many in the industry are doing it right already.

“We can’t go faster because we must be deliberative and collaborate with everyone from consumers to industry.”

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