USDA proposes framework, sets meeting to reduce salmonella infections

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has released its proposed regulatory framework to reduce salmonella infections linked to poultry products.

Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin says salmonella in poultry is a complex issue that must be addressed.

“There are about 1.35 million illnesses each year linked to salmonella, but our data that estimates which foods cause which illnesses has calculated close to close 25 percent of those illnesses are linked to poultry. That’s a lot of illnesses,” she says. “We also know certainly, in the age of COVID, some illnesses are harder to prevent than others. Foodborne illnesses are among the most preventable and we are focused right now on what industry can do and what the companies that produce the product we eat can do. We want to bring down those preventable illnesses and our data points us to poultry and salmonella. So, we’re using our experiences and input from scientists, advisory committees, risk assessments, and a whole range of stakeholders to better bring down and better ensure that those contaminated products that can make people sick don’t make it into commerce and that we can reduce the illnesses that people contract. We all have a responsibility once that raw poultry product comes into our kitchen to handle it safely, prepare it safely, and store it safely and to use a thermometer to ensure it is thoroughly cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.”

FSIS is seeking feedback from stakeholders. The agency will hear oral comments during a virtual public meeting on November 3. Written comments must be submitted on or before Nov. 16.

She tells Brownfield the proposed framework consists of three key components, including requiring flocks to be tested before entering an establishment.  

“With input from external stakeholders, and that input will continue throughout this process, the FSIS leadership and staff looked at the whole production process that we regulate. Our authority begins at the threshold of the slaughterhouse of the establishment and continues throughout from slaughter to processing. Products are packaged, put in trucks, and transported so we have to look at that. There are things that need to be done before our regulatory authority kicks in and after, but in light of that we developed three components of strategy that we view as comprehensive that we need to do all of them together. The first one is when those birds arrive at the slaughterhouse, we are contemplating requiring documentation that there be documentation that they’ve been tested for salmonella and what the results are. The goal here is to incentivize reductions on the farm. What can be done to reduce contamination? Many things. Everything from vaccinations, biosecurity measures, and more.”

Eskin says it’s important to note that the agency is not directing or contemplating directing producers do anything specific.

“All we are asking is for documentation on what the level is coming in,” she says. “Many operations already do all the things I mentioned. We want to know what the load is coming in because the lower the load, the easier it will be for the establishment and its processing to further reduce contamination.”

The second component is enhancing establishment process control monitoring and FSIS verification.

“Throughout slaughter and processing we have a set of regulation that has been in place for 25 years meant to oversee, monitor, and ensure that companies do things to reduce contamination, not just salmonella,” Eskin says. “We’re going to tweak those so that we have a better sense that establishment employees are monitoring what’s going on and taking steps to improve it. We will verify that through testing.”

The final component involves implementing an enforceable final product standard.

“We don’t have any in place right now for raw poultry products. We want to set a standard and we think the testing technology could support quantification,” she says.

Eskin says the agency is aiming to issue a proposed rule in mid-2023, accept public comments again, and finalize arule by mid-2024.

“We have made this initiative a priority,” she says. The secretary supports it and FSIS leadership and staff support it so we are cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to meet our timeline.”

Eskin provides some background on the effort to address salmonella and poultry products.

“FSIS is the public health regulatory agency at USDA. We oversee the production of meat, poultry and egg products, and a number of other products and our job is to continue to improve our policies and rules to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses linked to the products and reregulate,” she says. “For poultry there continues to be a stubbornly set number of illnesses, salmonella illnesses in particular. We haven’t been able to make progress in a number of years but at the same time when we sample and test product what we have found is a decrease in salmonella products, but that’s confounding because product contamination is decreasing with no impact on the illnesses. So, that begs the question, do we need to rethink the regulatory side here. What standards we might be able to set for these products, how we might implement them so we can reach our public health goal.”

Click here to find out more on the proposed framework, submit comments, and/or register to attend the virtual public meeting.

Audio: Sandra Eskin

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