USDA urged to better protect consumers from Salmonella, Campylobacter in poultry

USDA Urged to Better Protect Consumers from Salmonella, Campylobacter in Poultry

Petition filed by CSPI, CFA, Consumer Reports, STOP Foodborne Illness

Food safety advocates are calling on the United States Department of Agriculture to better protect consumers with new enforceable standards that will reduce, with an aim to ultimately eliminate, Salmonella types of greatest public health concern while continuing to target reductions in Salmonella and Campylobacter overall. The petition also asks the agency to require slaughterhouses to control risks in their supply chains, following best practices for food safety from farm to fork. The groups say the changes are needed in order to achieve public health goals for the coming decade.

In a regulatory petition filed today with USDA, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and Stop Foodborne Illness (STOP), as well as David Clubb, Amanda Craten, Diana Goodpasture, Mary Graba, and Melissa Lee, individual victims of foodborne illness, are urging the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to target the strains of Salmonella that are of the greatest public health concern, as opposed to regulating Salmonella as a single species. One of the most common Salmonella strains in poultry products, Salmonella Kentucky, rarely causes illness in consumers, while other strains, such as Enteritidis and Heidelberg are far more likely to cause illness and send consumers to the hospital. Other strains, like Typhimurium and Infantis, are concerning because they are more likely to resist treatment with antibiotics.

The groups are also asking the agency to require slaughterhouses to adopt science-based tools to prevent animals from being infected by these bacteria on the farm, including by vaccinating live poultry and monitoring farms for the presence of dangerous bacteria. Such practices have been in effect for years in Europe, where they helped bring about substantial declines in foodborne illness rates.

“Consumers want to be able to trust that the food they eat is safe,” said Amanda Craten, a petitioner and member of the Board of Directors at STOP, whose 18-month son was seriously injured and permanently disabled as a result of Salmonella-contaminated chicken. “My family wants nothing more than to ensure the USDA is using the best possible tools to keep others from suffering what we have suffered.”

At the start of the last decade, USDA and other federal agencies committed to meeting the Healthy People 2020 goals, which aimed to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans, including by reducing the incidence of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter. Yet at the close of 2020, progress on both fronts has been dismal: incidence of illness from both types of bacteria has remained as high, if not higher, than it was at the start of the decade. 

“We have seen little progress in actually reducing the number of people getting sick from Salmonella or Campylobacter,” said CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs Sarah Sorscher. “A big reason for that is the USDA has yet to take full advantage of the best current technology and science to control foodborne disease from farm to fork.” 

New targets aimed at tackling illness from Salmonella and Campylobacter have been set for Healthy People 2030. These two pathogens together caused over 70 percent of the confirmed foodborne illnesses from bacteria or parasites tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network in the U.S. in 2019. Many of the illnesses are caused by contaminated raw poultry meat, which can sicken unsuspecting consumers after even seemingly minor lapses in at-home food safety practices.    

“It’s unacceptable that the USDA is lagging so far behind the science, other food safety regulatory bodies and some members of the poultry industry itself in requiring adequate controls to prevent illnesses from these bacteria,” said Michael Taylor, a former USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator and current board co-chair of STOP.  “At the end of the day, the agency’s priority should be protecting the consumer from preventable illness.”

Other groups have also called for similar changes. In 2019, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a committee of scientific experts that advises USDA, recommended that the agency consider pre-harvest controls and the development of approaches that prevent Salmonella strains of public health concern from contaminating raw poultry products.

“A science-based approach is imperative to identifying the measures and controls that will help reduce foodborne illness rates linked to Salmonella and Campylobacter,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, and former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety. “We must leverage FSIS' public health expertise, available science, and industry best practices in order to fully protect consumers.” 

The current petition comes nearly a year after a petition filed by food safety attorney Bill Marler on behalf of consumer groups, which called to ban 31 “outbreak serotypes” of Salmonella in meat and poultry. Two of the signatories to the Marler petition, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports, also signed the petition submitted today, which builds on the Marler petition by laying out a process for USDA to create enforceable standards to target and ultimately eliminate priority Salmonella serotypes, as determined by USDA, while also addressing risks from Campylobacter and requiring slaughterhouses to control food safety risks all the way back to the farm.

“For too long, progress on reducing infections caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter in meat and poultry has stalled,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America. “The science and technology available to reduce foodborne illness has advanced by leaps and bounds, but USDA food safety regulations have not kept up. That needs to change.”