The U.S. Department of Agriculture must set strict pathogen limits for poultry products with the highest contamination rates and find ways to measure a poultry plant’s success with these new standards, according to a government report released Thursday.
The key problem is that ground poultry products and chicken parts – breasts, wings and drumsticks — have pathogen rates in the double digits, partly because of the cutting and grinding processes that expose the meat to more bacteria.
The Government Accountability Office report noted that after the USDA set a standard of 7.5 percent for salmonella on whole chicken carcasses, contamination rates fell to the single digits. A pathogen standard establishes the level of a bacteria that can be found on a poultry product before it is declared unfit for commerce.
Federal law does not prohibit the sale of poultry products that are contaminated with pathogens, so the department has pledged repeatedly to set limits for the most dangerous pathogens – salmonella and campylobacter.
The GAO noted that the USDA missed a Sept. 30 deadline for setting salmonella and campylobacter limits for chicken and turkey parts as well as campylobacter in ground turkey. It also missed a deadline for updating the rate of salmonella allowed in ground poultry, which is currently more than 44 percent for both chicken and turkey.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, three Senate Democrats criticized the agency for failing to honor the deadline, and urged the department to publish the standards “as quickly as possible.” Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Richard Durbin (Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) also referenced Centers of Disease Control and Prevention data that shows salmonella and campylobacter cause nearly 2 million food-borne illnesses, 27,000 hospitalizations and more than 450 deaths annually.
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with Food and Water Watch, said the USDA was supposed to set and update performance standards on a routine basis, something that has never happened. “There have been no revisions for over a decade for most of these meat products,” he said. “They need to revise the rest of the standards and go to Congress to make them enforceable.”
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says it will issue new pathogen standards and create a way to measure how well poultry plants are doing on meeting these standards by the end of the calendar year.
In a statement, FSIS said it agreed with the GAO’s findings and emphasized the GAO’s acknowledgement that the agency is putting in place “increasingly science-based, data-driven and risk-based approach to protecting public health.”
This post has been updated.