May 26, 2018

GAO Says USDA Should Cut More Pathogens in Meat and Poultry

On April 18, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the USDA should take more action to cut pathogens in meat and poultry products it regulates. That agency develops standards to limit the amount of pathogens in products it regulates.

GAO USDA Pathogens

But, no standards have been set for products such as pork chops, ground pork, and turkey breasts. And the report states that the agency’s process for deciding which products should have new standards for pathogens is not clear. In addition, the pathogen standards for ground beef, beef carcasses, and pork carcasses have not been updated since 1996. At that time, the standards were set at industry-wide prevalence levels, not at levels that may protect human health. Standards for other products are outdated, according to the report, with no time frames for revision.

The products with standards for Salmonella include beef carcass, ground beef, pork carcass, chicken carcass, chicken parts, comminuted chicken, turkey carcass, and comminuted turkey.  The products that have standards for Campylobacter include chicken carcass, parts, and comminuted, and turkey carcass and comminuted.

In 2016, USDA stated that new standards were needed to some specific poultry products to reduce Salmonella contamination. Outbreaks linked to those products in 2011, 2013, and 2015 sickened almost 800 people, killing one person. The agency says it takes consumption and illness data into account before deciding on new standards, but that process needs to be better documented, according to the GAO.

Just this year, a huge multistate Salmonella outbreak linked to recalled Fareway chicken salad sickened more than 250 people in six states. Officials are still investigating how the salad was contaminated. But this highlights the fact that chicken is a common source of Salmonella.

Consumer groups have complained that in poultry plants, FSIS “does not have sufficient authority to ensure plants comply with the standards because FSIS cannot shut down plants when they fail the Salmonella standards alone.”  The GAO review of FSIS data from 2016 through 2017 for poultry plants “shows that some plants are still not meeting pathogen standards – in some cases repeatedly not meeting the standards – and are allowed to operate.” In 2015, FSIS announced that investigators must conduct a public health risk evaluation at every plant that does not meet a pathogen standard, which the GAO said is a “positive step for those products that have pathogen standards.”

Setting these standards is a difficult task. Officials must assess the health risk to consumers, and it can be challenging to pinpoint how much of a reduction is needed to protect human health. And in the report, the GAO stated that USDA has limited control over factors that affect pathogen contamination outside of plants.

GAO made three recommendations to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). They are to document the process for deciding which products are considered for new standards, and to set time frames for determining which updates or standards are needed for ground beef, beef carcasses, ground pork, and pork cuts. Finally, GAO says that USDA should include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices in their final guidance on controlling Salmonella for hog farmers.

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