Several groups, including Consumer Reports and STOP Foodborne Illness, have written to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in support of increased food safety efforts regarding Salmonella in poultry.

The groups describe current regulations as “antiquated” and encourage the secretary to move forward to develop new and enforceable standards that are product based. They say such changes are “a commonsense approach” and will help protect consumers from dangerous Salmonella-contaminated poultry.

“These reforms are urgently needed. Salmonella illness rates in the United States have not decreased in the last 20 years,” the letter states. “Nearly a quarter of foodborne Salmonella illnesses are due to eating chicken or turkey.”

The coalition of consumer protection groups says in its letter to the USDA secretary that is urges him to continue working toward updated testing standards, greater disclosure of establishment compliance with food safety standards, and improved foodborne illness outbreak surveillance tools.

“We strongly support a transition away from the current, unenforced, performance standard-based system to one that ensures every product bearing the USDA mark of inspection meets food safety criteria. We also commend your commitment to mitigating Salmonella risk through ‘pre- harvest’ measures, and exploring a Salmonella testing requirement for each flock of birds destined for slaughter,” the letter states.

The letter acknowledges that Secretary Vilsack and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will encounter pushback from the poultry industry on any new regulations related to the control and reduction of Salmonella. Its letter also acknowledges that one industry group has already voiced its objection to the announcement of a proposed regulation that would allow the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to treat Salmonella as an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products. The move would in effect make it illegal for producers to sell Salmonella-tainted products in those categories.

In fact, soon after the USDA’s August announcement about the plan to strengthen Salmonella regulation, the National Chicken Council spoke out against the move.

“The National Chicken Council 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 illness over the past seven years,” said Ashley Peterson, the senior vice president of scientific and regulatory for the council.

“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 been associated with a single outbreak since 2015,” said Peterson. “It has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves.”

A statement from the council went on to say the targeted products are labeled as raw and need to be cooked and that the group had tried to work with FSIS “to ensure the continued safety of these products.” 

The letter from the consumer groups countered Peterson’s statement in its letter without naming the council.

“. . . (T)hese products have been a consistent source of Salmonella infections for decades — causing 14 illness outbreaks, including one just last year — precisely because their appearance misleads consumers to believe that the products are ready-to-eat,” the letter states.

“Prolonged efforts to warn consumers about these products through labeling have not worked. Common sense dictates that these products should be free of dangerous pathogenic contamination. However, to achieve real and sustainable progress in reducing the number of Salmonella infections, USDA will have to require stronger preventive measures for all raw poultry products, not just breaded and stuffed chicken products.

“We stand ready to support USDA in achieving significant reforms to protect consumers from Salmonella in poultry.”

The letter is signed by the following groups:

Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
Center for Food Safety
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Consumer Federation of America 
Consumer Reports
Food and Water Watch 
National Consumers League 
STOP Foodborne Illness

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