Des Moines, Iowa – The US Department of Agriculture on Friday proposed sweeping changes to the way chicken and turkey meat is processed aimed at reducing disease from food contamination, but could require meat companies to make large-scale changes to their operations.
Despite decades of efforts to try to reduce illness caused by salmonella in food, more than a million people get sick each year, and nearly a quarter of those cases come from turkey and chicken.
As it stands, consumers bear much of the responsibility for avoiding illness from raw poultry by handling it carefully in the kitchen — following the usual advice not to wash raw chicken or turkey (which spreads bacteria), using separate utensils when preparing meat and cooking to 165 degrees. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to do something about this by starting with farmers who raise birds and continuing through the processing plant where the meat is made.
Their Target Food Poisoning: Of the more than 2,500 salmonella serotypes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified three that cause a third of all human diseases from chicken and turkey products. The agency suggests limiting the presence of these on poultry products.
The USDA estimates the total annual cost of foodborne salmonella infection in the United States at $4.1 billion, which includes the cost of doctor and hospital visits, recovery and early deaths.
In 1994, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Administration took a similar step by declaring that some strains of E. coli were contaminated in ground meat and launched a pathogen testing program that significantly reduced disease from meat.
In an effort to reduce salmonella outbreaks in poultry, the agency is proposing a regulatory framework that includes testing incoming flocks of chickens and turkeys for the bacterial disease that normally affects the gut and infects 1.3 million people annually with symptoms that may include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting that can last for several days. Officials hope that testing chicken and turkey before they enter the slaughterhouse will encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce bacterial infection on birds before they reach the point of meat processing.
The second procedure requires improved monitoring of salmonella during processing by adopting sampling for bacteria at multiple stages within the processing facility. The third major change would be to set the maximum allowable limit for bacterial contamination and possibly limit the three specific types of salmonella that can make people sick. Meat that may exceed the limits or contain prohibited types of salmonella may be withheld from the market.
The USDA says there are about 3,000 federally inspected plants that slaughter poultry but about 220 produce the vast majority of poultry products. The agency said it was difficult to say how many people would be affected by future rule-making at this point.
The FSIS will begin a lengthy process to propose new rules by holding a public hearing on November 3 for input from the poultry industry and others. The government’s goal is to come up with new rules and regulations that could be introduced early next year and completed within two years.
The agency said it is taking its time to come up with these ideas and get input before tough regulations are put in place. Sandra Eskin, the US Department of Agriculture’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, said the agency hopes to begin setting rules in mid-2023 and complete them within two years.
“We know this is quite a pivotal point in terms of where the agency has been historically and that is why we try to be as transparent, deliberative and collaborative as possible,” Eskin said.
Consumer advocates have pushed for such a measure on poultry products for years. Eskin said the administration of President Joe Biden is pressing for changes.
Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading attorneys for representing consumers fed up with food sources, praised the agency’s work recognizing that controlling salmonella on animals before it reaches processing plants is critical to reducing meat contamination. He said the FSIS should be bold and consider salmonella an adulterous substance – a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness – in all meat as a starting point.
“What they showed is something really unique that they haven’t done before but that has no timetable and no attached regulations that say it will actually be done. That is my criticism,” he said.
The industry has been unable to meet government goals to reduce foodborne salmonella infections for two decades. Eskin said achieving the new target set for 2030 of 11.5 infections per 100,000 people per year would require a 25% reduction.
Eskin said the industry was able to reduce the number of salmonella-contaminated chicken samples by 50% from 2017 to 2021, but the rate of salmonella disease over the past two decades hasn’t fallen significantly. More than 23% of salmonella foodborne illnesses are attributable to the consumption of poultry with approximately 17% from chicken meat and more than 6% from turkey meat.
The North American Meat Institute, the trade association that represents workers who pack and process beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey, said efforts to control salmonella are a high priority.
“We are encouraged to see FSIS go through the usual rule-making process. “We look forward to reviewing the proposal and providing feedback from the industry,” said Julie Anna Potts, group president and CEO.
A spokeswoman for the National Poultry Council, which represents companies that raise and process chickens for meat, said they support efforts to reduce salmonella on chicken products.
“We are concerned that the proposed framework currently lacks industry input, research and data to support it,” said Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the group.
More must-read stories from TIME