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USDA should establish new standards for poultry pathogens: GAO.

USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service needs to develop performance measures for salmonella and campylobacter found in certain poultry products so that it would be in a better position to determine whether the agency's efforts to prevent foodborne illnesses are having the intended effect, according to new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report notes that FSIS has not yet established either target goals or strategies to measure the percentage of poultry slaughter plants complying with the agency's performance levels for pathogens present in young turkey carcasses and ground chicken and turkey. The GAO report recommends that USDA should:

* revise its salmonella standards for ground chicken and turkey products and create performance measures to track plant compliance and progress to FSIS goals;

* develop salmonella and campylobacter performance measures for whole turkey products;

* develop campylobacter compliance categories and performance measures with targets to track plant compliance and progress to FSIS goals; and

* include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices that can reduce salmonella and campylobacter pathogens in their compliance guidelines.

Currently, FSIS tracks this information only for salmonella found in young chicken carcasses. For fiscal 2013, FSIS set the salmonella target at 91 percent compliance and reported that 90 percent of plants met the standard.

FSIS says it also plans to develop performance standards for salmonella and campylobacter in raw chicken parts by the end of this year because Americans consume them more frequently than a whole bird and parts have been linked to foodborne illness outbreaks.

FSIS first set salmonella standards for young chicken and turkey carcasses in 1996. Under a subsequent revised version, no more than 7.5 percent of a plant's poultry can test positive for contamination, reduced from the previous 20 percent.

The first campylobacter standards also were established in 1996 for the same poultry products. The rate of campylobacter infections was 13 percent higher in 2013 compared to 2006-2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In December 2012, FSIS announced plans to perform additional salmonella sampling and testing of ground chicken and turkey products to revise existing standards. Currently 47 percent of ground chicken can contain the contaminant and almost 50 percent of ground turkey. FSIS plans to request public comment on new standards before the end of this year. Currently, there are no performance standards for campylobacter in ground chicken and turkey.

Performance standards are based on surveys conducted by FSIS that estimate the national prevalence of a pathogen in a certain product. FSIS uses those data to determine a baseline, then sets standards below that baseline to reduce the occurrence of pathogens.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, three senators--Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)--note that according to CDC data, the two pathogens are among the top five contributors to foodborne illnesses, and hospitalization and death resulting from foodborne illness in the United States.

"The GAO report confirms that USDA's pathogen standards for poultry products do not adequately protect public health," said Feinstein. "Strong new standards are desperately needed to reduce contamination and safeguard consumers from salmonella and campylobacter. I urge USDA to finalize strong standards, which it has committed to doing before the end of the year, so they can be implemented and improve food safety."
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Publication:The Food & Fiber Letter
Date:Oct 27, 2014
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