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The clock is ticking on poultry safety

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Thirty years ago this summer I went to work as administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) after the landmark Jack in the Box outbreak, caused by hamburger contaminated with a dangerous form of E. coliFour young children died and hundreds of people were made gravely ill.  We acted promptly to make selling such E. coli-contaminated ground beef unlawful.

It was common sense to do that. And it worked. Many needless deaths and permanent life-changing injuries have been prevented.

Today, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is moving to take similar action targeting dangerous forms of Salmonella in poultry.  I’m involved now on behalf of STOP Foodborne Illness, the non-profit that was formed by parents whose children had been killed or seriously injured in the Jack in the Box outbreak. Inspired by their example, STOP works with illness victims and their families to strengthen food safety policies and practices in government and the food industry.  

Illness victims like Noah are in the forefront. As a two-year old toddler, Noah was one of many victims of the 2013 outbreak caused by Salmonella Heidelberg in chicken.  This dangerous form of Salmonella wracked Noah’s small body with infection, resulting in a brain abscess that required surgery and caused permanent damage that Noah will struggle all his life to overcome.

It’s on behalf of Noah that we advocate for food safety and will work with anyone sharing our goal of preventing illness from dangerous bacteria in food.  And it’s on behalf of Noah and thousands more like him that we applaud Secretary Vilsack for recognizing the safety of poultry as one of USDA’s top priorities

Reform of USDA’s poultry safety system is badly needed and long overdue. Salmonella in poultry is one of the leading contributors to foodborne illness in the United States. Yet, current USDA policies leave companies legally free to ship raw poultry that is contaminated with dangerous forms of Salmonella known to cause illness.  And they do it every day with the safety imprimatur of USDA’s mark of inspection. From a consumer perspective, this is unconscionable and impossible to explain to families like Noah’s who have been devastated by Salmonella infections.

And it’s why STOP Foodborne Illness joined a coalition with other consumer groups, food safety leaders in major poultry companies, and academic experts to find answers. This consumer-industry-academic expert dialogue resulted in agreement that USDA’s decades-old and unenforceable “performance standard” approach is “broken. . . and not producing the desired public health outcomes.”  The coalition agreed in a 2021 letter to Secretary Vilsack that the time had come for USDA to set enforceable finished product standards for Salmonella in poultry that would target the forms of Salmonella making people sick. Like what FSIS did 30 years ago with E. coli in ground beef, this is just common sense.

Since then, USDA and the team at FSIS have done their homework. They held a public meeting and sought public and industry input on a new framework to modernize poultry safety, modeling off the changes made in ground beef.  FSIS also convened listening sessions, conducted risk assessments, and this spring issued a final rule establishing a precedent for reform by declaring detectable amounts of Salmonella unlawful in breaded stuffed chicken products.  In November 2023, after this deliberative process, USDA completed a proposed rule to prevent the sale of other raw poultry products containing unsafe levels of dangerous forms of Salmonella. 

Seven months later, the USDA proposal remains under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget. The White House has privately assured consumer groups that USDA’s proposal is a priority for publication, albeit one among many priorities. So why is a consumer-focused food safety proposal that addresses one of the largest sources of risk in the American food supply seemingly stalled?

One likely contributor to delay is the poultry lobby. This would not be the first time industry organizations have used their considerable weight to delay or block needed change in the USDA regulatory system. But what are their actual arguments?  Trade association comments on USDA’s Salmonella framework made the usual smokescreen claims, ranging from a lack of science to the trope that regulating Salmonella to make poultry safe will jeopardize consumer access to food.  Well, USDA has invested in robust science, including multiple risk assessments and a consultation with the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods.  

And it has never been the case that steps to make food safe have jeopardized consumer access to food. Industry made the same argument to me when I moved to ban dangerous E coli in ground beef.  Thirty years later, beef is plentiful and safer than ever, thanks to strong regulatory standards.  

Yes, there are many White House priorities, and food safety is not a sexy political issue. It shouldn’t be. Rather, food safety is a human issue. It’s a consumer issue. And consumers know what they want.  In a 2021 poll of registered voters sponsored by STOP, 86 percent favored USDA adopting an enforceable finished product standard to protect against dangerous bacteria in poultry.  

So, for the sake of Noah and many like him, it’s time to act. USDA has done groundbreaking work to get the reform process to this point.  It’s time for consumers, industry, and independent experts to see and evaluate USDA’s proposal and, through open dialogue, shape reforms that fulfill USDA’s responsibility and give consumers the safety and confidence they deserve.  

About the author: Michael Taylor is board member emeritus of STOP Foodborne Illness and served as FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine (2010-16) and FSIS Administrator and Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety (1994-96).

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