The chicken industry, represented by the Washington D.C.-based National Chicken Council, is letting the world know it has “grave concerns” about USDA’s plans to declare Salmonella an adulterant in frozen, raw, breaded stuffed poultry products.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on April 25 said it plans to declare Salmonella an adulterant in breaded, stuffed, raw chicken products. Under the proposal, FSIS would consider any breaded stuffed raw chicken products that include a chicken component that tested positive for Salmonella at one colony forming unit per gram before stuffing and breading to be adulterated.

FSIS will carry out verification procedures, including sampling and testing the chicken component of breaded stuffed raw chicken products prior to stuffing and breading, to ensure producing establishments control Salmonella.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the proposal “represents the first step in a broader effort to control Salmonella contamination in all poultry products.”

But the chicken industry says the Vilsack plan is an “abrupt shift” in longstanding policy that has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves, without moving the needle on public health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Salmonella bacteria cause approximately 1.35 million human infections in the United States every year, with 23 percent attributed to poultry consumption.

In a statement issued by NCC’s President Mike Brown, who first expressed the industry’s opposition this past year, poultry producers are coming down hard against making any Salmonella an adulterant.

“As these products often appear ready to eat, but contain raw chicken, we recognize their nature raises special considerations that merit additional attention. The National Chicken Council (NCC) and our 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. These efforts have been paying off, demonstrated by a significant decline in illnesses over the past seven years,” Brown said.

There has been one outbreak associated with these products since 2015, according to NCC. The industry statement continues:

“NCC estimates that on an annual basis, over 200 million servings of this product will be lost, 500-1,000 people will lose their jobs, and the annual cost to industry is significantly higher than USDA’s estimates. It is likely that this proposal would drive smaller producers of this product out of business entirely.

“This administration has prioritized addressing concerns with food availability and affordability. This proposal would undermine these goals by driving up food costs, reducing the supply of convenient, nutritious chicken, and forcing lower-income consumers of these products to purchase more expensive alternatives.

“We’re equally concerned that this announcement was not science-based and not driven by data, risk assessments, product testing, or scientific analysis.

“Going back to the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, the mere presence of Salmonella has not rendered raw poultry adulterated. 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.

“There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach to food safety, which is why we employ a multi-stage strategy. The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising and processing chicken, and by handling and cooking it properly at home.

“NCC remains confident these products can be prepared and consumed safely, and the industry remains committed to continuing their efforts to further enhance the safety of these products.”

According to NCC, not ready-to-eat (NRTE) frozen, raw, breaded, stuffed chicken products would include products like Chicken Cordon Bleu and Chicken Kyiv. They are typically sold raw, labeled to indicate their raw nature, and must be cooked properly following the instructions on the package.

The industry statement says “FSIS 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. Chicken processors take a number of steps to reduce and control Salmonella during processing, and final customary consumer cooking to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F destroys any Salmonella that may remain.

It says FSIS has never, since the Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957, taken the view that the mere presence of Salmonella on raw poultry renders the product adulterated.

The industry counts 14 outbreaks associated with these products have been investigated by public health officials since 1998. On average, it says there have been 10 illnesses associated with these products annually since 1998, mostly because of improper cooking.

NCC’s position is that there’d be no problem if consumers would just thoroughly cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and not merely use a microwave or air fryer. It has twice petitioned FSIS asking for mandatory and stricter labels for these products, to help consumers better understand the proper cooking procedures.

Last August NCC wrote to FSIS leadership asking the agency to draw on existing regulatory tools and policies and offered seven “specific, rigorous steps” that NCC says would have an impact on public health, but the inquiry did not get any response.

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