FSIS: ‘Perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach’ as efforts to reduce salmonella infections stall for 20 years

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Salmonella Poultry Food safety

Frustrated that salmonella infections have held stubbornly steady at more than 1 million cases annually for the past two decades, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is rethinking how and where it tests for contamination, potentially expanding its reach to include pre-harvest through processing.

“After some initial reductions in infections after the finalization of the HACCP rules by USDA, the incidence of salmonella infections has not significantly decreased since 2000. We have consistently missed our goal of reducing salmonella infections linked to FSIS regulated products set by every Health People initiative over the past number of decades,”​ lamented Sandra Eskin, deputy under secretary for food safety at the Office of Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture.

She explained at the Consumer Federation of America’s 44th​ Annual National Food Policy Conference last week that slightly more than 20% of foodborne salmonella illnesses are attributed to poultry consumption – approximately 14% from chicken and just over 6% from turkey.

Eskin suggested: “If our current policies are not at least moving us in the right direction, then perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach.”

And, she added, that is exactly what she intends to do in her new role, which she assumed in March 2021.

“FSIS has to develop a policy on reducing product contamination in a way that we believe will effectively reduce foodborne illness, and of course, it’s critical that the policy be monitored to determine if it’s actually working."

To do this, she said, FSIS will need to simultaneously ground policies and regulations in the best available science and experiment with innovative approaches to salmonella control.

This might include enhancing performance standards to look beyond simply if a sample is contaminated to look also at the strain of salmonella and the extent of the contamination.

“We know that the industry already collects vast amount of data and information that they use as part of their salmonella control efforts, and we’d like to unlock which data and measures are most informative and then home in on the ones FSIS should prioritize to drive a reduction in illness,”​ she said.

FSIS looks to expand reach through partnerships

Eskin also noted that the agency is looking for new ways to better control salmonella through the entire poultry supply chain and production system, including areas that are currently outside of its purview and which will require strategic partnerships to execute.

In particular, Eskin said, FSIS is looking to reduce contamination at the pre-harvest farm level, where it does not have regulatory authority.

“We know that most salmonella contamination enters the facility with the birds and the more we can do to reduce contamination at the point of slaughter, the less contamination and cross contamination,”​ she said.

FSIS also will be looking for ways to reduce contamination during processing, where the risk currently increases.

“We find more salmonella in chicken parts than in chicken carcasses, and we find more salmonella in comminuted chicken than in chicken parts. This means we are seeing prevalence of salmonella on raw product, increasing as birds move from flock from slaughter to processing through complicated products,”​ she said.

Pulling this off, and hopefully reaching the agency’s 2030 goal of reducing infections by 25%, will require collaboration and ongoing dialogue between the agency and all stakeholders, including consumer groups, industry and researchers, Eskin said.

“FSIS plans to solicit scientific expertise on many of these issues, including considerations for how the best science and latest science could be applied to a regulatory framework. We will be casting a wide a inclusive net and thinking about potential paths forward,”​ she said.

While she acknowledged this will be labor intensive, she concluded, “there is a need for change. We can’t keep going in the same direction and expect to see a public health impact.”

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