Efforts in Congress to give the performance standards teeth have stagnated.
Following the court decision, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation to give USDA the legal authority to shut down plants that repeatedly violate performance standards. Senate Republicans voted as a bloc to kill it, joined by two Democrats.
Harkin then made repeated efforts to advance legislation known as Kevin’s Law — in memory of a Colorado toddler who died in 2001 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 — but the measures never got out of committee. Similar bills on the House side sputtered as well.
Some of the ideas in Kevin’s Law were included in the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January. It gives inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to order recalls and shut down processors that repeatedly sell contaminated produce, eggs or other non-meat products. But the new law doesn’t apply to USDA and the meat processors it oversees.
Despite USDA’s lack of enforcement muscle, in July it tightened its performance standards for poultry slaughterhouses for the first time. Under the new standard, no more than 7.5 percent of a plant’s raw chickens can test positive for salmonella bacteria — down from 20 percent previously and in line with the industry’s recent average.
As an incentive to comply, plants that don’t meet USDA’s standards are posted online.
But the tests sample whole carcasses before the birds are cut into pieces, when further cross contamination can happen.
This helps explain why the USDA’s salmonella contamination rate of 7.5 percent in slaughter plants is lower than what the FDA has found in retail stores. In 2009, FDA tests showed that 21 percent of the chicken breasts it sampled from grocery stores were contaminated with salmonella.
“The chickens walk into the slaughterhouse with salmonella on board and they leave with salmonella on board,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And it still has opportunities to spread.
Heat is the main danger.
A 2007 industry study found unsafe temperatures in 30 percent of food transports between processors and distribution centers, and in 15 percent of food transports between distribution centers and retail stores.
Here again, the government isn’t really checking. Federal regulation of food transport has been shared and tossed around among various agencies over the past half-century and hasn’t always taken food safety into account.
The regulation of food transportation is “a little bit of a no man’s land,”said Sarah Klein, staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
To reduce the risk from salmonella, USDA says poultry should be cooked to 165 F, as measured by a meat thermometer. To prevent cross contamination during food preparation, people should wash their hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling raw poultry or other foods; and they should wash cutting boards, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water or a bleach solution after cutting raw poultry or other meats.
But half of American consumers do not use food thermometers, 40 percent don’t separate raw from ready-to-eat foods, and almost half use the same cutting boards for raw poultry and produce, according to a 2011 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, a public education group based in the District.
The survey found that most people felt that the government and food manufacturers share responsibility.
“Food that comes into your home contaminated — not your fault,” said Klein. “The food shouldn’t have been contaminated in the first place.”
News21 reporter Robyne McCullough contributed to this article.
This article was produced as part of the Knight-Carnegie News21 program, a national university reporting project headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. The reporters conducted their research as fellows at the University of Maryland in College Park.