Consumer groups praise FSIS salmonella poultry standard; chicken industry objects
The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Monday, Aug. 1, it will be declaring salmonella an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products such as chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev products that are found in the frozen food section of grocery stores.
Sandra Eskin, the agriculture deputy undersecretary for food safety, made the announcement at the International Association for Food Protection meeting in Pittsburgh.
“Today’s announcement is an important moment in U.S. food safety because we are declaring Salmonella an adulterant in a raw poultry product,” Eskin said. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to improve public health.”
She added that the Federal Register notice will be published in the fall and that she expects the final rule to be completed sometime in 2023.
Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest all praised the decision, while the National Chicken Council said the announcement “was not science-based or data driven” and has the potential “to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves.”
In a telephone interview, Eskin told The Hagstrom Report that she disagreed with the National Chicken Council’s statement.
“Our job at FSIS is to ensure that meat and poultry products that can make people sick are not allowed into commerce,” Eskin said.
In a news release, FSIS explained, ““Since 1998, breaded and stuffed raw chicken products have been associated with up to 14 outbreaks and approximately 200 illnesses.”
“Products in this category are found in the freezer section and include some chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev products. These products appear cooked, but they are heat-treated only to set the batter or breading and the product contains raw poultry. Continual efforts to improve the product labeling have not been effective at reducing consumer illnesses.”
FSIS continued, “Breaded and stuffed raw chicken products will be considered adulterated when they exceed a very low level of Salmonella contamination and would be subject to regulatory action. FSIS will be proposing to set the limit at one colony forming unit (CFU) of salmonella per gram for these products, a level that the agency believes will significantly reduce the risk of illness from consuming these products.”
“The agency will also seek comment on whether a different standard for adulteration — such as zero tolerance or one based on specific serotypes — would be more appropriate.”
Ashley Peterson, the senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council, said “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 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.”
NCC said the 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.”
But Eskin said in the interview that “tweaking” labeling would not solve the problem and that FSIS will “work with the companies” to make their products safer.
Eskin said FSIS would not require that the breaded and stuffed chicken products be cooked but that the threshold will make the products safer.
Using the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points system of food inspection that has been in place since 1996, FSIS will test the products.
“Ideally” FSIS will catch any product that doesn’t meet the standard, but if some slip through the companies can recall them, she added.
FSIS also noted that USDA announced in October 2021 that it was reevaluating its strategy for controlling salmonella in poultry and that the department plans to present a proposed framework for a new comprehensive strategy to reduce Salmonella illnesses attributable to poultry in October and convene a public meeting to discuss it in November.
“Food safety is at the heart of everything FSIS does,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the news release. “That mission will guide us as this important first step launches a broader initiative to reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry in the U.S.”
Consumer Federation of America Food Policy Director Thomas Gremillion said, “This announcement represents a sea change in how poultry is inspected in the United States. Rather than certifying a poultry processing establishment’s safety, FSIS will now certify the safety of each poultry product itself. And that’s what matters to consumers.”
Consumer Reports Food Policy Director Brian Ronholm said, “Hundreds of thousands of people are sickened by poultry contaminated with Salmonella every year. Today’s action represents a critical first step toward strengthening USDA’s ability to prevent Salmonella illness and hold manufacturers accountable for removing contaminated products from the market. “
Center for Science in the Public Interest Deputy Director for Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said Eskin had said USDA “will be taking bold new steps to prevent chicken and turkey contaminated with dangerous bacteria from reaching store shelves.”
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