“Educate before we regulate”

Salmonella reduction on poultry carcasses is priority number one for FSIS, according to an agency spokesman.

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Dr. Engeljohn, USDA Deputy Assistant Administrator
Dr. Engeljohn, USDA Deputy Assistant Administrator

Speaking during the IPE educational sessions, Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Policy, Program and Employee Development, FSIS, said that ongoing salmonella sampling of broiler carcasses has shown an upward trend in the percentage of broiler carcasses that have salmonella on them over the last few years. Current testing has highlighted that carcasses could be contaminated with a number of serotypes including the Kentucky and Heidelberg serotypes. Engeljohn said that FSIS will be working with the industry to “educate before we regulate” to help industry eliminate the salmonella problem.

FSIS is launching an “all-out assault” on salmonella in poultry over the next year. The service is to shift its focus away from beef and E. coli O157:H7 in beef to concentrate on the problem of salmonella in poultry processing plants. Engeljohn said there has been a “persistent consistent increase in salmonella in broilers, and the percent of positive carcasses has remained in the double digits.”

Initially, the broiler industry will be the major concern for the FSIS inspectors. Engeljohn said, “The number one priority is broilers.” FSIS is scheduled, however, to set its first salmonella baseline for turkey carcasses beginning early in 2006. He said that the focus of the agency will be on carcasses first and then ground products later. “We do believe there are some things that can be attended to, to make dramatic reductions in the percent positive rates there (with carcasses), and then we will begin focusing on ground products. Expect far more attention from the agency,” he said.

FSIS will concentrate on examining processing practices and how poultry plants monitor and tackle salmonella problems. Engeljohn said that process control had to be at the center of measures to eradicate the problem. He added that while a lot can be done to reduce salmonella in live-bird production, food-safety systems have to be established in plants to insure that production procedures are addressing salmonella and not spreading it. Engeljohn said that too many processing plants are relying on action taken in the chilling tanks to eliminate salmonella and not enough is being done in the processing procedures beforehand. He warned that focusing on the chiller is too late, and that plants that were found to be relying on purely eliminating salmonella contamination in the chiller and had no program further up the line would come under particular scrutiny.

“There is too little focus on what is coming through the door,” Engeljohn said. “There is too little focus on overall dressing procedures.”

Engeljohn added that if the processing plants knew and understood the extent of contamination of the birds when they come into the plant, procedures could be put in place to resolve the problem and reduce contamination. He added, however, that processing plants often did not know the effectiveness of the dressing procedures they already had. Saying that there is too little focus on antimicrobial action in the scald tank and in the hanging area, he warned that difficulties with salmonella on the outside of the bird at this stage could be exacerbated when the bird is opened up. Engeljohn said that industry needs to insure that contamination is not carried over from bird to bird and from shift to shift, and in this respect processing equipment should be regarded as a potential source of contamination.

“We as an agency believe that if you are not taking care of the issue before the birds come in the door and you are not taking care of the issue on the slaughter floor and you are just relying on the chiller, you will not be successful. Inappropriate focus on the chiller could invite focus by FSIS,” Engeljohn said. The educational part of this new FSIS initiative to reduce salmonella started with a meeting the agency held with industry on post-harvest salmonella controls in Atlanta on February 23 and 24.

“If you control salmonella, then you start to control other pathogens such as campylobacter,” Engeljohn said. “It is an industry-wide challenge. Individual processors cannot do it alone.”

In response to FSIS’s concerns over salmonella levels on broiler carcasses, the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association are working cooperatively to seek solutions, according to Stephen Pretanik, director of science and technology for NCC. He said that the NCC salmonella reduction program has two goals. The first goal is to get the industry average post-chill carcass salmonella positive prevalence rate as low as possible and to keep reducing it. The second goal is to develop industry-wide best management practices for salmonella reduction.

The salmonella reduction program is a written agreement of NCC member companies who agreed to enroll all their facilities in a U.S. Poultry & Egg Association monitoring program, the micro survey, and to openly share salmonella control information between companies. Pretanik said that a crucial part of this program is that the commitment for participation comes from executives of the companies, and this signals to everyone the importance of this effort. An NCC-FSIS Salmonella Task Force has been formed to serve as a liaison between industry and FSIS. Its purpose is to share industry progress with the agency and to share agency concerns with the industry.

The micro survey conducted by U.S. Poultry & Egg Association since 1996 is a national microbial survey of processed broilers and is designed to provide food safety information to the industry. Since the initiation of the salmonella reduction program, participation in the micro survey has increased greatly, according to Pretanik. Now, participating plants slaughter 87 percent of the broilers processed in the USA. The survey provides estimates of the number of generic E. coli on broiler carcasses and estimates of the percentage of carcasses testing positive for generic salmonella and campylobacter.

Engeljohn said it is FSIS’s position that there are steps that the poultry industry could be taking to lower salmonella levels in live birds and on carcasses in the plant.

Unfortunately, salmonella control may not be as easy as the regulators think it is. Pretanik reported on a meeting that the U.S Poultry & Egg Association hosted on salmonella control in May of last year to share lessons learned by participating companies in the struggle to reduce salmonella numbers. Control measures for the broiler and turkey industries and pre-harvest and processing steps were examined.

Pretanik reported on the presentations from the salmonella control conference. He said that primary breeders reported that they can get their birds salmonella-free. This is done primarily through very strict biosecurity strategies. Intensive biosecurity measures are also employed by primary breeders as part of their NPIP programs and as insurance against loss of genetic material from a disease outbreak. At the parent-breeder level, however, biosecurity is not as strict, and biosecurity alone does not work to maintain salmonella-free birds. Vaccination and competitive exclusion (CE) have been helpful controlling salmonella in parent stock, but effective CE products being used in Europe have not been approved for use in the USA. The reason for the lack of approval is that these CE products are undefined. For meat birds, biosecurity alone is not effective. Vaccination of the parents combined with CE for the meat bird chicks may be effective, but, once again, CE is not available. Litter amendments and water treatments may help to reduce salmonella, but they are not consistently effective. Pretanik said that the take-home lessons for pre-harvest salmonella control are that salmonella eradication is achievable in the primary breeder sector, while salmonella control is very difficult in the parent-breeder and grow-out sectors.

There are several post-harvest salmonella control intervention points, according to Pretanik. These are in the scalder, pre-chill antimicrobial rinses, in the chiller and post-chill antimicrobial rinses. He said that scalder pH adjustment is difficult to execute, and the results have not been consistent from plant to plant. Pre-chill antimicrobial rinses – and there are lots of them on the market – do not provide consistent results from plant to plant either, according to Pretanik. Most broiler plants now employ an antimicrobial rinse as part of their online reprocessing program, but no one compound or application system is used by a majority of plants. In fact, many integrators used several different antimicrobial rinses at their different plants.

Engeljohn said that the industry places too much emphasis on using its chlorinated immersion chilling systems to control salmonella. The chiller, however, is the only consistently effective salmonella reduction step, according to Pretanik. He said that while chiller pH and chlorine optimization have been shown to be extremely effective in reducing salmonella numbers, it is difficult to maintain consistent application of chlorine and acidifiers. Semi-automated or non-automated systems are most commonly used in the industry’s chillers today.

Pretanik said, “We need to develop automated systems to maintain consistent pH and chlorine levels in the face of variable organic loads in the chiller.” He also said that FSIS needs to revisit the 5 parts per million chlorine limit on red water, and he said that the agency has expressed willingness to do this.

Post-chill antimicrobial rinses appear to be promising for reducing salmonella, according to Pretanik. Immersion dips are more effective than on-line sprays, because they allow for a longer contact time on the product. He said that some people have reported issues with product discoloration from application of these rinses. Some processors use post-chill antimicrobial sprays to lower salmonella on parts used to make ground turkey and ground chicken.

Pretanik said, “Industry is striving to reduce salmonella levels and is evaluating new interventions or new applications of existing interventions.” He also said that the poultry industry is sharing information on what works and what doesn’t work, and that it is measuring its progress through the micro survey and FSIS sampling results. Pretanik issued a few challenges to the poultry industry, its vendors and researchers. He said there is a need for automated chiller pH and chlorine management equipment. Focused research efforts are needed to find interventions that consistently provide salmonella reductions in the real-world environments, both on the farm and in the plant. Finally, Pretanik said that we need to understand why salmonella organisms are so persistent on carcasses, especially when compared to E. coli and campylobacter.

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