In spite of real reductions in in levels of bacterial contamination of broiler carcasses, foodborne illnesses attributed to eating poultry products is still a major food safety concern, said Frank Yiannas, vice president, food safety at Walmart. He told the audience at the International Poultry Forum China, “Poultry safety is a top of mind issue in many countries around the world.” He said that in U.S. 19 percent of foodborne deaths are attributed to eating poultry products, the most of any food category.

Frank Yiannis

In the U.S., Campylobacter illnesses are on the rise and Salmonellosis illnesses is not coming down, even though testing of broiler and turkey carcasses show that contamination levels with these bacteria have declined. Poultry producers have made progress, but more work will be needed.

Improved outbreak detection

Yiannas said that technology is enhancing our ability to recognize foodborne illness outbreaks. Pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing allows us to compare the genetic fingerprint of an illness causing organism found in patients in different geographic locations and tie these together into one outbreak, and then ultimately connect them to a source. He said that his technique was used to tie widely scattered Salmonella illnesses to peanut butter in the U.S.

In Denmark, credit card data from patients suffering from E. coli infections were used to identify common food items purchased. It was found that the patients had purchased a particular brand of sausage, which, when tested, was found to have the outbreak strain.

Canadian researchers looked retrospectively at what things consumers were searching for on the Internet during the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak. These researchers said that had they been tracking consumer searches on the Internet they would have discovered the outbreak long before it was found using traditional public health reporting.

Yiannas said that everyone in the food supply chain will need to improve food safety. Otherwise, with improved detection of outbreaks, it will appear that food safety is getting worse, not better.

Continuous improvement is the road that the food industry must follow to both improve food safety outcomes and maintain consumer trust.

Building consumer trust in poultry products is a major challenge for broiler companies in China. Yiannas said, “I am encouraged by the (food safety) work I am hearing about here at this meeting to shape a better future for the citizens of China.” He challenged the audience to be proactive. He said, “As food system professionals, our job isn’t simply to predict the future, but to shape the future.”

Walmart’s food safety initiatives

Walmart has asked all of its private brand suppliers to be Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certified. Yiannas reported at the meeting that worldwide 86 percent of Walmart’s private brand suppliers were now GFSI certified.

In December of 2014, Walmart announced an industry first “Poultry Safety Initiative” for its U.S. for poultry suppliers. This program consists of a four-point plan:

1.      Primary breeder stock – reduce vertical transmission of Salmonella – continue to work to achieve zero Salmonella in breeder stock

2.      Bio control measures - Vaccination of broiler/breeder flocks – particularly if Salmonellas been found in the poultry houses, specifically vaccinate against Salmonellas that are human pathogens

3.      Whole chicken process control - Use regulatory approved processing plant interventions to achieve a 4 log reduction of Salmonella through the chiller

4.      Chicken parts intervention – Use regulatory approved interventions to achieve 1 log reduction of Salmonella in cut-up and deboning operations

Food safety is everyone’s job

The customer is still an important part of food safety, particularly for chicken, since we aren’t at zero percent contamination for Salmonella and Campylobacter. Yiannas said that retailers and processors have a responsibility to educate our consumers about safe food handling and proper cooking procedures.

He said that safe handling instructions on packages and at point of sale as well as use of social media, particularly around the holidays, to push out food safety information are important. He said that Walmart uses TV monitors at checkout stands around the holidays to push out food safety information. The USDA said that Walmart TV increased traffic to their food safety website by 380 percent, according to Yiannas.

“Food safety is a shared responsibility, primary breeders can’t do it alone, chicken processors can’t do it, retailers can’t do it, and consumers can’t do it,” he said. “Working together we can do what we can do alone.”