USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) just proposed new, tightened performance standards for Salmonella in poultry and the establishment of standards for Campylobacter where none existed before.

By the numbers  

As proposed, the new maximum allowable incidence of Salmonella in chicken would be lowered from no more than 12 samples out of 51, or 20%, to no more than five samples out of 51, or 7.5%.

The maximum allowable incidence of Campylobacter would be based on two percentages: one specifying the percentage of 1 ml portions that are positive, and the other specifying the percentage of total sample-specific positive results counting either the 1 ml or the 30 ml rinsate portions as positive.

Industry and others have 60 days to comment on the proposed policy, which is expected to go into effect as early as July.

USDA under pressure  

The proposed standards are the first-ever standards for Campylobacter, and mark the first revision to the Salmonella standards for chicken since 1996 and for turkeys since the first standards were set in 2005.

USDA had been under pressure for some time from consumer groups to tighten the Salmonella performance standards. In fact, FSIS indicated when the standards were set in 1996 that it would revise them downward from the 20% level in chicken “as justified by progress in pathogen reduction and demonstrated reductions in the national baseline prevalence of Salmonella.” That was the plan, but following an initial decline in levels from 1996 to 1999 the numbers in chicken rose steadily for the next four years, peaking in 2004 at around 35%.

Cycle of pain  

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Of course, as USDA came under pressure, so did the industry to bring the salmonella levels under control. Out of that experience, came what one industry manager has termed, the “cycle of pain,” referring to the establishment of Food Safety Audits and other programs which visited progressively punitive enforcement actions on plants with higher incidences of salmonella.

By 2005, broiler companies across the industry had erected a wide variety of costly interventions – in what has been termed a “shotgun” approach – to reduce salmonella levels. Not an efficient or cost effective approach, but it produced results. The salmonella levels in broilers showed a steady decline since 2005. The baseline report for 2009 puts it around 7.2%.

No reduction in number of human illnesses  

Now, a new, and inevitable, question arises. With the decline in the incidence of salmonella in poultry, where’s the predicted reduction in human salmonellosis? USDA’s stated rationale for the 1996 pathogen reduction program was to reduce the incidence of disease in people. It has not occurred.

The government’s goals for Healthy People 2010 included an incidence of 6.8 cases of human salmonellosis per 100,000. In 1997, the reported incidence was 13.6. For the year 2009, the incidence was not lower, it was higher at 15.19.

So, since 2004, human salmonellosis cases have been relatively unchanged, while broiler carcasses testing positive have been trending downward.

This leads to the question, is FSIS tightening the noose on foodborne pathogens...or inadvertently on the poultry industry?

USDA says its new standards are designed to lower the danger of foodborne illness. It estimates that after two years under the new standards 39,000 illnesses will be avoided each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and 26,000 fewer illnesses each year under the revised Salmonella standards. You can’t prove that by the data.