Is there a missing element in the poultry industry’s food safety programs? Maybe so, according to a panel of industry leaders.

Don’t take for granted the role of consumers in insuring the food safety of poultry! That was a clear take-away message of a panel of nine of the U.S. poultry industry’s most influential leaders at the Poultry Leadership Roundtable. The roundtable was sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health and WATT.

Joined by a foodservice buyer, a food scientist and a banker, the roundtable members agreed that communications with the public about food safety need to be elevated to a new level. For instance, labeling and cooking instructions are continually being upgraded. But there are many misconceptions among consumers that need to be addressed.

Roundtable member Carl Blackham, who is managing director of the food and consumer group at Harris Bank, said, “We have a great industry. We have a great product. We have made great strides in food safety. With all the strides that we have made, we haven’t figured out how to communicate the value of our product well enough.”

The challenge: Despite great progress in insuring the food safety of poultry, the message is not easily delivered in a simple way. For example, spectacular progress has been made in reducing the incidence of Salmonella in processed poultry in the U.S. From 1996 until the present, Salmonella prevalence has been reduced from around 20% to less than 5%.

In fact, that’s the lowest Salmonella prevalence coming out of processing plants in the world. Eliminating the remaining 5%, however, poses a Herculean task, according to the panel.

“We have to figure out how to discuss and talk about non-perfect messages, such as the fact that we can’t talk about a sterile piece of chicken on an all-the-time, everyday basis, even though we’re focused on that goal. Somehow we have to be able to discuss it and talk about the progress that we’ve made and have that come out the way it is in real life that people are really quite dedicated to this aspect of food safety,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue Farms, senior vice president food safety and quality.

There are other opportunities and challenges in communications with consumers. One opportunity is in educating them on safe handling and preparation of poultry. As the level of pathogenic organisms in ready-to-cook poultry is reduced, educating consumers in safe handling practices may become the next-most-effective strategy in promoting food safety. But as one panelist said, “It is not about handing off the responsibility for producing a safe product to anybody else. We know we own it.”

Why is it in the interest of the industry to educate consumers about food safety? The panelists noted that consumer perceptions drive food safety laws and regulations. Perceptions even help drive, or hinder, the level of investment in technologies needed to produce safe poultry. (No company wants to invest in technologies that won’t meet regulations or consumer acceptance.)

The roundtable members talked about the importance of food safety communications all along the poultry production and supply chain. They said, ‘Don’t leave consumers out; they are the most important members.’ If there is a missing element in the industry's food safety programs, it may be in the industry-wide coordination of those communications.