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Pew Highlights Weaknesses in Poultry Safety System

New Report Offers Solutions to Better Protect Consumers from Foodborne Illness

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The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that examines how two recent outbreaks of foodborne salmonella infections exemplify flaws in the federal food safety program. The report, Weaknesses in FSIS's Salmonella Regulation, also makes seven recommendations to improve the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) control of salmonella in poultry and strengthen its response to outbreaks caused by these bacteria.

Update: CDC announces that outbreak appears to be over

From December 2013 to July 2014, more than 200 additional people were reported as having salmonella infections linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms, according to the final update on the outbreak issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The outbreak, the second traced to Foster Farms chicken, sickened at least 634 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico beginning in March 2013. The first outbreak (June 2012-April 2013) caused a reported 134 salmonella infections in 13 states.

“When more than 700 people get sick from two outbreaks associated with chicken that meets federal safety standards, it is clear that those standards are not effectively protecting public health,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew's safe food project. “The Food Safety and Inspection Service should go beyond what it is proposing in its Salmonella Action Plan and do more to target salmonella, which is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other bacterium or virus.”

chicken-store-300

Among the report's recommendations, FSIS (an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture) should:

  • Change its approach to developing and implementing limits on salmonella contamination for chicken, known as performance standards, so they are updated regularly, enforceable, and linked to public health outcomes.
  • Consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse.
  • Conduct unannounced salmonella testing in chicken processing facilities.
  • Communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible.
  • Close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food and keep them closed until adequate control measures are in place.

In addition, the report recommends that Congress grant FSIS the authority to mandate recalls.

Background information

  • According to the CDC, two multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections—the first from June 2012 to April 2013 and the second from March 2013 to July 2014—were linked to chicken produced by Livingston, California-based Foster Farms, the sixth-largest chicken producer in the United States. At least 768 people in  31 states and Puerto Rico were reported to public health authorities as having been sickened in the two outbreaks. Because salmonella cases are underdiagnosed, however, the CDC estimates that the outbreaks may have actually sickened as many as 22,000 people nationally.1
  • It is estimated that salmonella causes more than 1 million foodborne illnesses every year.2 A recent review of scientific articles has identified several long-term consequences of salmonella infections, including reactive arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.3 The health-related costs of salmonella to the nation run as high as $11 billion a year.4 And about 90 percent of salmonella infections are foodborne, with contaminated poultry believed to be a primary cause.5

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Endnotes

  1. According to CDC, for every case of salmonella reported to public health authorities, 29.3 others are underdiagnosed. The estimate was obtained by multiplying the total number of cases reported in the two outbreaks (768) by 29.3.
  2. Elaine Scallan, et al., “Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—major pathogens,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 17 (2011): 7–15. 
  3. Michael B. Batz, Evan Henke, Barbara Kowalcyk, editors David Acheson et al., “Long-term consequences of foodborne infections,” Infectious Disease Clinics of North America September 2013. 27 (2013): 599–616.
  4. Robert L. Scharff, “Economic Burden From Health Losses Due to Foodborne Illness in the United States,” Journal of Food Protection 75 (2012): 123–131.
  5. Shua J. Chai et al., “Salmonella enterica Serotype Enteritidis: Increasing Incidence of Domestically Acquired Infections,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 54 (2012): S488—97; Michael B. Batz, Sandra Hoffman, and J. Glenn Morris, Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations With the Greatest Burden on Public Health, Emerging Pathogens Institute, University of Florida (2011), accessed Oct. 17, 2013, https://folio.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/10244/1022/72267report.pdf.