The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long sought to decrease the occurrence of food borne illness from two of the most common pathogens found in poultry, salmonella and campylobacter. These pathogens, both bacterial, are often found in uncooked or undercooked poultry, including butchered and ground turkey and chicken. In keeping with this goal, the USDA has proposed new voluntary standards for raw poultry parts which it claims may reduce the number of food-borne illnesses related to poultry by about 50,000. The goal is to provide a safer and more sustainable poultry industry the American consumer can have confidence in.
The Two-Fold Plan to Reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter
The two-fold approach asks producers of poultry products to do a better job screening their poultry flocks for the presence of these pathogens, and then to provide more sanitary facilities and processes to prevent the spread of these pathogens. In short, both salmonella and campylobacter currently exist in about a quarter of all raw poultry parts that are subjected to testing – salmonella is in 24% of raw chicken parts and campylobacter is in about 22% of raw chicken parts. And the rates of salmonella and campylobacter in uncooked ground poultry can be significantly higher. But ironically, prior to the new USDA standards, the emphasis was solely on whole fryers (poultry carcasses), and no guidelines were in place for the presence of these dangerous pathogens in raw chicken parts or for ground poultry, leaving the industry to establish and maintain its own standards and levels. That has now changed.
The goal of this new two-prong approach is to reduce the occurrence of salmonella to 16% of raw chicken parts and campylobacter to 8% of raw chicken parts, as well as to see significant corresponding reductions in the presence of both pathogens in ground poultry. The idea is to set lower levels for these products as a way to insure that proper selection and proper procedures are used to reduce and prevent the spread of salmonella and campylobacter in the products so many millions of American consumers purchase.
Safer Food Ensures Market Share
The new regulations (or rather “guidelines”) are voluntary, but many believe that poultry companies will follow the guidelines on their own. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the new policies can be seen as a matter of preserving the future of poultry in the US. Vilsack stated: “It’s in the long-term best interest of the market to have safer food.” In a way, by producing safer poultry, US producers will be guaranteeing the place of chicken and turkey on the American dinner table.
But that is not the only motivation, says salmonella lawyer Ron Simon, who has led the way in the recent Foster Farms salmonella outbreak that has been the impetus behind this new push for safer poultry. “The risk of a lawsuit is another good motivation,” says Simon, “because the setting of new standards makes sense, and a failure to voluntarily comply with what are known to be effective methods of reducing salmonella and campylobacter can lead a jury to penalize a poultry company who fails to do so if people end up getting sick. This new set of guidelines provides us with another avenue to force these companies to do the right thing.”
The Foster Farms Outbreak Linked to Fecal Matter in Chicken
The USDA is embracing these new standards now in the aftermath of one of the widest spread salmonella outbreaks in US history. In the last two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified at least 600 victims of salmonellosis linked to one or more of the seven-strain Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak traced to Foster Farms chicken and facilities. In addition to many citations for poor sanitation, on at least one occasion, a Foster Farms facility was shuttered temporarily due to an infestation by cockroaches.
Throughout the 18-month outbreak, Foster Farms was highly criticized for its failure to issue a general recall of its contaminated products, issuing only a limited recall after a young victim was hospitalized with salmonellosis after consuming Foster Farms chicken. Health officials were dispatched to the home of the young man’s family and collected leftover frozen portions of the Foster Farms chicken (sold in individually packaged wrap containing chicken breasts). The chicken was subjected to advanced analysis and proved positive for the matching DNA outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.
The salmonella lawyers at Ron Simon & Associates are representing the young man’s family and other victims in the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak.
According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak was the reason the USDA decided to refocus its attention on reducing salmonella and campylobacter in poultry. According to Vilsack, the new guidelines should apply to about 80% of poultry sold in the US.
Critics of the New Policies Allege They Do Not Go Far Enough
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, speaking thorough Caroline Smith DeWaal, was one of the fist to criticize the program for failing to go further and enable the USDA to close plants and production facilities that fail to measure p to the new standards. This was a complaint reiterated by salmonella lawyer Ron Simon, who notes “as long as it is a voluntary standard, there will be those who fail to abide by the standards, and people will get sick.” The up-side, says Simon, “is this will give us better leverage to go after these companies and to force them to become more responsible.”