The standards are to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in ground chicken and turkey products, as well as in raw chicken breasts, legs, and wings.
FSIS uses pathogen reduction performance standards to assess the food safety performance of establishments that prepare meat and poultry products.
The agency has updated its microbial testing schedule at poultry facilities and will post information online about individual companies' performance.
Al Almanza, USDA deputy under-secretary for food safety, said the approach to poultry inspection is based on science and supported by strong data.
"The new performance standards will complement the many other proactive, prevention-based food policies that we've put in place in recent years to make America's supply of meat and poultry safer to eat."
The leading cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the US is Salmonella. An estimated 1.2 million illnesses are thought to be caused every year by it, with 375,000 Salmonella illnesses attributed to FSIS-regulated products in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.
For chicken parts, ground chicken, and ground turkey, FSIS is finalizing a pathogen reduction performance standard designed to achieve at least a 30% reduction in illnesses from Salmonella.
For chicken parts and ground chicken, the standard is designed to achieve at least a 32% reduction in Campylobacter.
Because the prevalence for Campylobacter in ground turkey is already low, the reduction for this product is estimated to be 19%, said the agency.
The standards were proposed in early 2015 and form part of the Salmonella Action Plan from 2013.
‘Standards don’t get us over the food safety goal line’
David Plunket, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) senior food safety attorney, said the performance standards should reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination on ground chicken and turkey as well as chicken parts.
“That is welcome news. But the standards only move the ball modestly, reducing contamination rates from 25% of product to 15% they don’t get us over the food safety goal line,” he said.
“Each year 830,000 people get sick from eating chicken and turkey contaminated with these two bacteria. The standards, if they are effective, will reduce that number by an estimated 50,000 illnesses a year.
“In the aftermath of the Foster Farms outbreak, which may have sickened as many as 20,000 people, that company reduced contamination rates to 3% of product. Certainly that shows processing plants can and should be required to do better.”
Review of sampling methods
Members of the Safe Food Coalition called on USDA to conduct a review of its microbial sampling methods to ensure that industry processing techniques do not hamper ability to detect Salmonella.
They said any standard will only be as reliable as the testing to measure compliance. It urged the agency to address concerns that chemical interventions used by poultry plants may interfere with FSIS’ detection of pathogens.
“The standards released today are a step in the right direction. By focusing on parts, they will offer more targeted protection to consumers.
“The new standards also improve on the status quo by increasing the frequency of sampling and publishing poultry plants’ performance.
“Before, FSIS published the identities of worst performers on its website, but under the new standards, consumers will be able to see information about all poultry plants and which of three categories they fall into.”
Safe Food Coalition members include the Center for Foodborne Illness, Research and Prevention, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch and STOP Foodborne Illness.
Progress, but not enough
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said: “While the new federal standards announced by the USDA are progress in fighting foodborne illnesses, implementing these standards alone is not enough to keep American consumers safe.
“The USDA should immediately declare Salmonella as an adulterant as part of their work to protect consumers and reduce public health threats.”
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said under the new finalized rule USDA-FSIS will allow potential disease in poultry products that risk the health of the American people.
“Salmonella and Campylobacter are known disease-causing bacteria and the new rule guarantees they will continue to be present in processed chicken and turkey products compounded by the fact that some poultry processing plants have line speeds of 175 birds per minute,” she said.
“Even by the USDA's own estimate, there are 360,000 illnesses attributed to regulated products and while this rule reduces those numbers, we should not be satisfied until we bring these preventable illnesses down to zero.”