Between 2009 and 2015 there was a 12% reduction in foodborne illnesses associated with meat, poultry and processed egg products. “We’re better now at keeping unsafe food out of commerce, whether it’s made unsafe because of dangerous bacteria, or because of an allergen, like peanuts or wheat,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a USDA release. “Over the course of [President Obama’s] Administration, we have tightened our regulatory requirements for the meat and poultry industry, enhanced consumer engagement around safe food handling practices, and made smart changes to our own operations, ultimately moving the needle on the number of foodborne illness cases attributed to products that we regulate.”
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has implemented a number of initiatives since 2009, including:
- Establishing a zero-tolerance policy for raw beef products that contain shiga-toxin producing E. coli: O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145.
- Labeling mechanically tenderized meat. The blades or needles used to tenderize meat an introduce pathogens into the meat.
- First-ever pathogen reduction standards for poultry parts in order to reduce consumer exposure to Salmonella and Campylobacter. The standard is expected to prevent 50,000 cases of foodborne illness each year.
- Requiring that all poultry facilities create a plan to prevent contamination with Salmonella and Campylobacter, instead of addressing the problem after it occurs. Poultry companies must collect samples at two points in the production line and test them to show control of enteric pathogens.
- Requiring meat and poultry companies to hold all products that are undergoing lab analysis until USDA microbial and chemical tests for harmful hazards are complete.
The USDA has finalized federal standards to lower the incidence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in ground chicken and poultry (including raw chicken breasts, legs and wings, which comprise about 80% of the chicken that American’s purchase). FSIS updated its microbial testing schedule at poultry facilities and will also start posting food safety performance about companies online.
“This approach to poultry inspection is based on science, supported by strong data, and will truly improve public health,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza in an agency press release. “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.”
Intended to achieve at least a 30% reduction in Salmonella illnesses, a pathogen reduction performance standard for chicken parts, ground chicken and ground turkey is being finalized by FSIS. It is doing the same to achieve a 32% reduction in illnesses from Campylobacter in chicken parts and ground chicken. FSIS estimates a low prevalence of Campylobacter in ground turkey and is thus aiming for a 19% reduction.
“Over the past seven years, USDA has put in place tighter and more strategic food safety measures than ever before for meat and poultry products. We have made strides in modernizing every aspect of food safety inspection, from company record keeping, to labeling requirements, to the way we perform testing in our labs,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the release. “These new standards, in combination with greater transparency about poultry companies’ food safety performance and better testing procedures, will help prevent tens of thousands of foodborne illnesses every year, reaching our Healthy People 2020 goals.”
As part of a federal goal to achieve a 25% reduction in Salmonella illnesses related to meat and poultry products by 2020, USDA’s FSIS has revised and published guidelines for poultry processors. The document, “FSIS Compliance Guideline for Controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter in Raw Poultry”, intends to provide best practices based on scientific and practical considerations for minimizing pathogen levels and meeting FSIS food safety requirements.
The guidance recommends preventive measures that poultry companies can make in the following areas:
- Pre-harvest (on the farm)
- Sanitary dressing procedures
- Further processing practices
- Antimicrobial interventions
- Management practices
FSIS is also seeking comment on the fourth edition of the updated document.
There has been little change in the number of confirmed Salmonella cases, which sicken more than 1 million people annually in the United States. The guidance is part of FSIS’ Salmonella Action Plan, which was announced in December 2013.
The presence of Listeria monocytogenes in retail establishments can become a persistent problem. While maintaining vigilant and strict cleaning practices is key to reducing the risk, Haley Oliver, Ph.D., associate professor of food science at Purdue University cautions there is no silver bullet for a cleaning strategy, because every store is different. The rate of Listeriosis has not decreased but rather has plateaued, and controlling Listeria is a growing problem, forcing it to be a hot topic at this year’s IAFP conference.
“Attempting to regulate an industry as broad as retail in the United States is a huge challenge,” said Kevin Smith, Ph.D., senior advisor for food safety at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. According to Smith, more than 2200 agencies are responsible for the licensing and inspection of retail facilities. Due to the massive size of the industry, much of the actions surrounding driving compliance and enforcing regulations occur through state, local, and tribal authorities.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) attributed 83% of Listeriosis cases to deli meats that were sliced at a retail counter, (as opposed to meats prepackaged at a facility). Retailers should be using the FSIS guidelines released in June, “Best Practices Guidance for Controlling Listeria monocytogenes in Retail Delicatessens“, for specific information about how they can ensure the safety of products such as deli meats. Revisions to the guidance include a clarification that food processing equipment should be taken apart during cleaning and sanitizing; an added recommendation that retailers scrub surfaces during cleaning to prevent biofilm formation; and clarification that retailers rotate sanitizers to avoid development of resistance. According to Kristina Barlow of FSIS, these practices can extend beyond deli meats to any products that are prepared at retail.
Barlow outlined areas that the Listeria best practices guidelines address, including:
- Product handling. “Use products formulated with antimicrobial agents to prevent growth of Lm—96% illnesses could be reduced if retailers used these products,” said Barlow.
- Cleaning and sanitizing. It is recommended that retailers develop written sanitation procedures outlining the daily frequency in which utensils and equipment should be cleaned and sanitized. Equipment should be cleaned every four hours, and surfaces scrubbed to prevent biofilm formation. Barlow advised that retailers document all actions they perform to ensure that procedures are carried out each day.
- Facility and equipment controls. Ensure that the floors, walls and overhead structures are clean. Listeria that is harbored in drains is more likely to creep its way into equipment, and the bacteria can also hide under dust and floors, so it is important to avoid construction when food products are exposed.
- Employee practices. Use gloves, train in sanitation practices, and make sure that information is available to employees in multiple ways (i.e., other languages and use of images). In addition, implement policies to ensure that ill employees are not working with food; and limit employee traffic in the deli area—develop traffic flow plans for product, employees and other items to prevent contamination by both consumers and employees. Finally, employees should change aprons or other frocks when soiled. “Gone are the days when the butcher is covered in blood [and] serving people,” said Barlow.