USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) decision to declare Salmonella as an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products is not welcomed by the regulated industry.
“NCC (National Chicken Council) is concerned about the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy, made without supporting data, for a product category that has only been associated with one outbreak since 2015. It has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves,” according to a statement from the industry group.
The FSIS reported that since 1998, breaded and stuffed raw chicken products have been associated with up to 14 outbreaks and approximately 200 illnesses.
The National Chicken Council’s statement was issued in response to an FSIS announcement of its plans to declare Salmonella an adulterant in frozen, raw, breaded and stuffed chicken products. The chicken council statement was from Ashley Peterson, NCC’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.
“We’re equally concerned that this announcement was not science-based or data-driven,” she said.
“Going back to the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, the mere presence of Salmonella has not rendered raw poultry adulterated,” Peterson continued. “We believe FSIS already has the regulatory and public health tools to work with the industry to ensure the continued safety of these products. We’ve been asking the agency for years to collaborate on these efforts, including two petitions for stricter regulations, requests that have gone largely ignored.”
The FSIS Aug.1 policy change came with the endorsement of the head of the USDA. “Food safety is at the heart of everything FSIS does,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “That mission will guide us as this important first step launches a broader initiative to reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry in the U.S.”
“Today’s announcement is an important moment in U.S. food safety because we are declaring Salmonella an adulterant in a raw poultry product,” said Sandra Eskin, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to improve public health.”
By declaring Salmonella an adulterant in these products, Eskin said the FSIS will be able to ensure that highly contaminated products that could make people sick are not sold to consumers.
According to the FSIS, products in this category are found in the freezer section and include some chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev products. These products appear cooked, but they are only heat-treated to set the batter or breading and the products contain raw poultry. Continual efforts to improve product labeling have not been effective at reducing consumer illnesses.
As these products often appear ready to eat, but contain raw chicken, Eskin said the FSIS recognizes that their nature raises special considerations that merit additional attention.
The National Chicken Council (NCC) claims that its member companies have invested millions of dollars and have worked for more than a decade to develop and refine best practices for these products to reduce Salmonella and protect public health. The NCC says these efforts have been paying off, demonstrated by a significant decline in illness in the past seven years.
The Washington D.C.-based trade association says as these products often appear ready to eat, but contain raw chicken, it recognizes their nature raises special considerations that merit additional attention.
The FSIS says its plan for breaded and stuffed raw chicken products will be to consider the products adulterated when they exceed a very low level of Salmonella contamination and would be subject to regulatory action.
The FSIS will be proposing to set the limit at 1 colony forming unit (CFU) of Salmonella per gram for these products, a level that the agency believes will significantly reduce the risk of illness from consuming these products. The agency will seek comment on whether a different standard for adulteration — such as zero tolerance or one based on specific serotypes — would be more appropriate.
The notice, scheduled for fall publication in the Federal Register, will be seeking public comments that address what the standard should be as well as to help the agency develop a final implementation plan, including a verification testing program.
Once published, the notice will be posted on FSIS’ Federal Register & Rulemaking page for review and comment. When the proposal is finalized, the FSIS will announce its final implementation plans and the date it will begin routine testing for Salmonella in these products.
This action is part of the FSIS’ broader efforts to reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry. In October 2021, the USDA announced it was reevaluating its strategy for controlling Salmonella in poultry, including whether Salmonella should be considered an adulterant in specific raw poultry products. Since launching this effort, the USDA has been focusing on gathering information by meeting with stakeholders to hear their ideas, asking for recommendations from food safety experts, and soliciting ideas for pilot projects from the industry to test drive different control strategies in poultry establishments. The USDA plans to present a proposed framework for a new comprehensive strategy to reduce Salmonella illnesses attributable to poultry in October and convene a public meeting to discuss it in November.
The NCC says the FSIS and has long interpreted the Poultry Products Inspection Act such that Salmonella is not an adulterant in raw poultry, a view reinforced by federal courts as well.
It says chicken processors take a number of steps to reduce and control Salmonella during processing, and final customary consumer cooking to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F destroys any Salmonella that may remain. The FSIS has never since the Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957, taking the view that the mere presence of Salmonella on raw poultry renders the product adulterated.
According to the NCC’s count, eleven outbreaks associated with these products have been investigated by public health officials since 1998. Prior to one 2021 outbreak, the last multistate outbreak of not-ready-to-eat stuffed chicken products was in 2015.
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