Despite recent reports about how new government programs have reduced Salmonella contamination on poultry, this Thanksgiving is no time to be lax about food safety. In fact, the best data available indicate that more than nine out of ten turkeys carry bacteria that could cause food poisoning, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
While no one invites Salmonella or Campylobacter home for the holidays, said DeWaal, consumers must expect these unwelcome guests every time they bring home a turkey.
A leading consumer analyst of laws and regulations governing food safety, attorney DeWaal was the morning newsmaker at the National Press Club today. She reviewed recently released data on the contamination rates of turkeys and on the successes and failures of the first years operation of the new federal food-safety system, called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system.
DeWaal reported that a major U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey of turkeys conducted in 1996-1997 found that Campylobacter was present in 90 percent of the turkeys tested. USDAs survey found that 97% of turkeys were contaminated with one or more of five types of dangerous bacteria. The data were collected before the HACCP system was implemented in large meat and poultry plants, including many turkey plants, but there is no evidence that Campylobacter contamination has declined.
Campylobacteris the number-one cause of bacterial food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Campylobacter can also cause a serious neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to temporary paralysis, similar to polio.
The latest government data show that this is no time to lower the safeguards in the kitchen, she said. While it is imperative that the industry and the government work to ensure safer turkeys, consumers remain the last line of defense against food poisoning.
CSPI recommends the following precautions:
All those steps, said DeWaal, will pay off with a healthy and worry-free holiday celebration. She added that, although there is a lot that consumers and the food industry can do to make food safer, the government has a critical role to play, too.
DeWaal compared the performance of the new HACCP systems in place for meat, poultry, and seafood. Last January, the USDA implemented the new HACCP systems in the 300 largest meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants. Government data for the first six months of the USDA program, said DeWaal, found a 93% compliance rate. Under that program the average Salmonella contamination rate in chicken had been reduced by half, from 20% down to 10%. She added that turkey and red meat also showed improvement.
Compared with the large meat and poultry plants, the seafood industry has turned in a dismal performance, said DeWaal. Last December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented HACCP systems in 3,800 seafood plants. FDA chose not to require any pathogen-reduction standards or testing. Within six months of implementing the HACCP system, only 30% of the seafood plants that FDA inspected were in compliance. FDA found that 70% of the domestic seafood plants it inspected had serious or critical violations. Importers did even worse.
The lessons from HACCP implementation in the meat, poultry, and seafood industries are clear, said DeWaal. We cant rely on an industry honor system to ensure the safety of food. For HACCP food-safety systems to work, they must be combined with a strong inspection force and standards for the reduction of microbial hazards.
DeWaal discussed Congress record on food-safety issues. While Congress did provide $75 million in new food-safety funding for the National Food Safety Initiative, she noted that it failed to enact mandatory recall legislation, failed to pass a bill to improve the safety of imported food, and failed to create a unified agency to oversee food safety.
Food safety is truly a kitchen-table issue for the American public, said DeWaal. I hope that the next Congress will complete the work that needs to be done if Americans are to have safe food, not only on Thanksgiving Day, but every day of the year.
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