Salmonella in Chicken and Turkey Targeted By New USDA Rules

Seeking to prevent about 50,000 food poisoning cases a year, federal food regulators have proposed new safety standards to reduce the risk of salmonella and campylobacter contamination in poultry. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced new standards for chicken and turkey, which include a more frequent sampling schedule and introducing pathogen reduction performance standards for chicken parts, such as legs, thighs, breasts and wings. The proposed poultry safety measures were published in the Federal Register on January 21.

The new standards are part of the FSIS’s salmonella action plan, launched in December 2013, which seeks to reduce the number of salmonella food poisoning cases in the United States. FSIS estimates that the proposed standards will cut salmonella illnesses by at least 30%, and indicates that they may prevent an average of 50,000 illnesses per year. They anticipate a reduction of 19% to 37% in cases of campylobacter food poisoning.

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Salmonella attacks the gastrointestinal tract, causing mild to severe symptoms. For most healthy adults, problems associated with food poisoning from salmonella typically resolve after a few days or weeks. However, young children, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems have an increased risk of suffering severe food poisoning after ingesting the bacteria. If not properly treated, some cases of salmonella food poisoning can lead to hospitalization, dehydration or death.

Every year, Salmonella is estimated to cause about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, the vast majority of which go unreported. Illnesses usually last four to seven days causing diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping. In severe cases the pathogen can cause death.

“Today, we are taking specific aim at making poultry items that Americans most often purchase safer to eat,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “This is a meaningful, targeted step that could prevent tens of thousands of illnesses each year.”

One of the main tools the new standard will employ is a pathogen reduction performance standard for chicken parts. These standards are used to measure the safety performance of facilities that prepare meat and poultry products. Currently, these standards are only in place for whole chickens. However, according to the FSIS, the risk of salmonella contamination increases when those chickens are then processed into parts, which represent 80% of the chicken available to Americans.

In addition, the FSIS would begin employing routine sampling throughout the year instead of the current infrequent sampling to look for Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry products.

The FSIS is taking public comment on the proposed standards for 60 days, after which it hopes to begin implementation in March, starting with the increased sampling.

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