How two recent outbreaks illustrate a failure to protect public health
The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed the events surrounding two multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections. It identified significant weaknesses in existing federal regulations and policies aimed at controlling salmonella contamination in poultry products.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections—the first lasted from June 2012 to April 2013, and the second started on March 2013 and is ongoing —were linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms, the sixth-largest* chicken producer in the United States.1 At least 523 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico were reported to public health authorities as having been sickened.2
Based on estimates by CDC, however, these outbreaks may have sickened as many as 15,000** people nationally due to the underdiagnosis of salmonella.3 The federal agency responsible for inspecting meat and poultry products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, issued a public health alert*** for the second outbreak4—but not the first. In neither instance did FSIS ask Foster Farms to institute a recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken to market.****
The safe food project of The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed the events surrounding these two outbreaks. It identified significant weaknesses in existing federal regulations and policies aimed at controlling salmonella contamination in poultry products.*****
- Current limits on salmonella contamination for chicken, known as performance standards, and related policies do not adequately protect public health.
- As opposed to other pathogens such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, the Food Safety and Inspection Service does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in raw poultry, but treats it as an indicator organism used to determine whether a company is producing safe food based on the level of salmonella found.
- Performance standards, which are not updated regularly, are based on the national prevalence of the pathogen in a specific product instead of public health impact.
- There are no salmonella performance standards for chicken parts, which are purchased more widely than whole chickens.
- FSIS tests products at chicken-slaughter plants once a year except for those considered “best performing,” which are tested every other year******
- Companies receive advance notice from FSIS before samples from their facilities are tested for salmonella.
- FSIS cannot close a plant based only on results from its salmonella-verification testing.
- As part of prevention-based safety requirements, poultry plants are not required to treat the presence of salmonella as a “hazard likely to occur,” or a significant risk that needs to be controlled during processing and production.
- There are no requirements for farm-level control measures that would help reduce salmonella contamination in chickens before they arrive at slaughter facilities.
* Ranking determined by average weekly million-head slaughtered in continental U.S. plants for 2012. Foster Farms laughtered a weekly average of 5.84 million heads in 2012. In the same year, Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. chicken producer, slaughtered a weekly average of 35.4 million.
** According to CDC, for every case of salmonella reported to public health authorities, 29.3 others are underdiagnosed. The estimate in the text was obtained by multiplying the total number of cases reported in the two outbreaks (n=523) by 29.3.
*** FSIS issues public health alerts about potential health risks for cases in which the agency cannot recommend a recall, such as when the source of the outbreak has not yet been identified. FSIS can also issue an alert to remind consumers of safe food-handling practices. (Source: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/current-recalls-and-alerts/recalls-and-publichealth-alerts.)
**** FSIS cautioned the company that it would close the plants after three days if corrective actions were not adequate. (Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Notice of Intended Enforcement, accessed Nov. 7, 2013, http://www.marlerblog.com/files/2013/10/Foster-Poultry-Farms-Est.-6137P.pdf; http://www.marlerblog.com/files/2013/10/Zorro-Leasing-10-07-13.pdf; http://www.marlerblog.com/files/2013/10/foster-farms-est-6137a-p1.pdf.)
***** This report focuses only on poultry; however, many of the recommendations are also relevant to meat products.
****** “Best performing” establishments (or category 1) are those with lower numbers of salmonella-positive samples when they are tested. (Source:http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/home/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOINAg3MDC2dDbwsf
- Based on its evaluation, Pew makes seven general recommendations for improving the control of salmonella in poultry and strengthening the agency’s response to outbreaks caused by these bacteria. FSIS should:
- Reconsider its approach to developing and implementing salmonella performance standards so they are:
- Updated regularly to reflect changes in industry practices, such as the adoption of new technologies.
- Directly linked to public health outcomes.
- Useful in evaluating companies on a regular basis rather than one or two times over a two-year period as is
currently the case.
- Enforceable, which may require legislative action.
- Issue performance standards for chicken parts.*
- Conduct unannounced salmonella testing.
- Consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter into the slaughterhouse, which may require legislation.
- Communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible when there is sufficient
epidemiological evidence linking illnesses to a company’s product, even if there is not a definitive link between
specific products and patients.
- Close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food, and keep them closed until adequate
control measures are in place.
- Be given mandatory recall authority.
The recent outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to Foster Farms5 have uncovered serious weaknesses in FSIS salmonella policies and regulations. The agency should make significant improvements in controlling salmonella contamination to reduce the number of preventable illnesses caused by contaminated poultry.**
* On Oct. 31, 2013, FSIS said it is going to issue performance standards for chicken parts in fiscal year 2014, but no specific date has been given. (Source: Food Chemical News, Nov. 1, 2013. Vol. 55, No. 32.)
** As this report was being finalized in December 2013, FSIS released a salmonella action plan highlighting the steps the agency is taking to better control the pathogen in meat and poultry. More can be found at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safetyeducation/
1 Gary Thornton, “U.S. chicken companies enter 2013 with production increases,” WATT Poultry, accessed Nov. 18, 2013, http://www.wattpoultryusa-digital.com/poultryusa/201303?pg=14#pg14.
2 “Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Chicken (Final Update),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
accessed Oct. 22, 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-02-13/index.html. See also, “Multistate Outbreak of Multidrugresistant
Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Foster Farms Brand Chicken,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed
Oct. 22, 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-10-13/index.html.
3 Elaine Scallan, et al., “Foodborne illness acquired in the United States--major pathogens,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 17 (2011): 7-15.
4 “FSIS Issues Public Health Alert for Chicken Products Produced at Three Foster Farms Facilities,” USDA Food Safety and Inspection
Service, accessed Oct. 22, 2013, http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/newsroom/news-releases-statements-and-transcripts/newsrelease-archives-by-year/archive/2013/pha-100713.
5 “Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Chicken (Final Update)” and “Multistate Outbreak of Multidrugresistant
Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Foster Farms Brand Chicken.”