Salmonella outbreaks uncover ‘serious weaknesses’

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

FSIS approach to minimise Salmonella 'ineffective' - Pew
FSIS approach to minimise Salmonella 'ineffective' - Pew

Related tags Public health Foodborne illness

Two outbreaks of Salmonella infections linked to Foster Farms chicken have uncovered “serious weaknesses” in policies and regulations, according to a report.

Limits on Salmonella contamination for chicken, known as performance standards, do not adequately protect public health, said The Pew Charitable Trust

The safe food project of The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed two outbreaks and response from the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS).

In the first outbreak, chicken sickened at least 400 people in 23 states and Puerto Rico from seven strains of Salmonella.

39% of ill people have been hospitalized but no deaths have been reported and most illnesses (74%) have been reported from California.

The outbreak strains were resistant to some commonly prescribed antibiotics, which may be associated with increased risk of hospitalization, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Earlier outbreak

The other multistate outbreak from June 2012 to April 2013 was also linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms.

At least 523 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico were reported to have been sickened, according to the CDC.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) issued a public health alert for the second outbreak but not the first. FSIS didn’t ask Foster Farms to institute a recall or stop shipping chicken to market.

FSIS does not have the authority to issue a recall but can ask the company to do so or a company can voluntarily recall products – both did not happen in the two outbreaks subject of the report.

Pew made seven recommendations for improving control of the pathogen, including unannounced testing, issuing performance standards for chicken parts and be given mandatory recall authority.

The agency should make ‘significant improvements’​ in controlling contamination to reduce the number of preventable illnesses caused by contaminated poultry.

FSIS actions

FSIS issued an action plan to tackle the problems related with the pathogen, however, a number of organisations raised questions about the document.  

Pew said baseline studies or performance standards are not regularly updated to reflect industry practices, such as new technology.

FSIS concluded its first baseline study last year for chicken parts, which estimated that the prevalence of salmonella in these products is 24% compared to 7.5% in whole birds.

FSIS does not consider Salmonella to be an adulterant in raw poultry, but treats it as an indicator organism used to determine whether a company is producing safe food based on the level of Salmonella found, said Pew.

FSIS tests products at chicken-slaughter plants once a year except for those considered “best performing,” which are tested every other year.

The two recent outbreaks of S. Heidelberg linked to chicken bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of FSIS’s approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in poultry products.

"The agency’s response to the evidence collected by the states, CDC, and its own investigation efforts was inadequate to protect public health​,” concluded the report.

Related topics Food Safety & Quality

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