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YOUR SOURCE ON FOOD LITIGATION AND REGULATION

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a new initiative that its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to put in place to limit Salmonella in poultry plants to help reduce related illnesses.

In its press release, USDA explained that, although the poultry industry has managed to reduce the occurrence of Salmonella, more than 1 million Salmonella illnesses continue to occur annually, with an estimated 23% caused by consuming chicken and turkey. USDA hopes that the initiative will help USDA “move closer to the national target of a 25% reduction in Salmonella illnesses.”

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin, who is leading the initiative, stated, “Reducing Salmonella infections attributable to poultry is one of the Department’s top priorities” and that “current policies are not moving us closer to our public health goal. It’s time to rethink our approach.”

Key FSIS Activities under the Initiative

  • Seek initial feedback from stakeholders on specific Salmonella control and measurement strategies in poultry plants
  • Focus on pre-harvest controls to reduce Salmonella contamination before it reaches slaughterhouses
  • Work with USDA’s Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area to address data gaps and develop new laboratory methods to guide future Salmonella policy
  • Partner with the National Advisory Committee for Microbiological Criteria in Foods (NACMCF) to assist FSIS in improving the science and technology necessary to control Salmonella
  • Examine how quantification can impact the likelihood of Salmonella illnesses, focusing on serotypes and virulence factors that pose the greatest public health risk
  • Require collaboration and ongoing dialogue with stakeholders to ensure key activities remain up to date

Implications

FSIS’s initiative is likely in response to the early 2020 petition submitted to FSIS on behalf of several individuals and consumer groups, requesting that FSIS classify 31 Salmonella strains—which the petition referred to as the “Salmonella Outbreak Serotypes”—per se adulterants in meat and poultry products. Although the initiative will likely result in some burden on the poultry industry, in particular regarding pre-harvest controls, it shows USDA’s emphasis on collaborating with the industry. In addition, unlike the petition’s potentially broad and ambiguous consequences throughout the entire food chain, the plan’s immediate focus appears to be limited, at least initially, to controlling Salmonella contamination in poultry at a pre-harvest level.

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether there will be any future implications for testing and/or sequencing activity for poultry farms, plants, and slaughterhouses once the NACMCF and FSIS have determined the likelihood of Salmonella illnesses based on serotypes and virulence factors that pose the greatest public health risk. USDA will likely seek stakeholder feedback on control and measurement strategies once the initial phase of the initiative is implemented.

Most notably, the limited scope of this initiative must be welcome news—at least for the time being—for the meat industry, which, together with the poultry industry, was included in the petition. Rachel Edelstein, assistant administrator for the FSIS Office of Policy and Program Development, recently updated petition sponsors in a letter addressed to attorney William D. Marler, stating that the petition’s broader classification request would be considered under FSIS’s “plans to explore possible new approaches for addressing Salmonella in poultry.” It therefore remains to be seen when FSIS will respond to the petition and how that might affect meat producers.