By Dianne Feinstein
Originally appeared in Food Safety News
Each year, one in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness. Of those who become sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
American families shouldn’t have to worry that the food they eat will make them sick. However, we have a long way to go to reach that goal.
In 2012, testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in processing facilities across the country found that more than 26 percent of poultry parts tested positive for Salmonella and more than 21 percent tested positive for Campylobacter. In 2011, Food and Drug Administration testing revealed that more than 70 percent of chicken breasts in California grocery stores tested positive for Campylobacter.
Poultry parts have been implicated in two multistate outbreaks in recent years. The most recent lasted more than a year and sickened 634 consumers, including 490 people in my home state of California.
Even more concerning, these recent outbreaks were also associated with highly virulent strains of Salmonella that caused high rates of hospitalizations and serious infections.
In the recent Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, 36 percent of illnesses resulted in hospitalization and 13 percent resulted in bloodstream infections. On average, Salmonella outbreaks result in a hospitalization rate of 20 percent and a 5-percent bloodstream infection rate. Some of the outbreak strains were also resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Today, there are no standards or routine testing for poultry parts — chicken legs, breasts, wings and thighs — which are the most commonly purchased poultry products in U.S. grocery stores.
While there are current pathogen standards for ground poultry products, they date back the late 1990s and were set in large part to reflect the average performance of the industry. Because of that, the current limit for Salmonella contamination in ground chicken is a staggering 44.6 percent and 49.9 percent for ground turkey.
Additionally, pathogens are not measured at multiple points in processing. Pathogens are only measured before processing begins, despite the fact that there are numerous opportunities for contamination during processing. This means poultry products contaminated by the end of processing are likely to go undetected by inspectors and producers.
Simply put, these standards are shocking. The current patchwork of outdated standards is inadequate and does not keep our food safe.
This is why I’m not surprised that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that no progress has been made in reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses since the agency first conducted a baseline study of foodborne illness rates from 2006-08, despite the fact that USDA inspects millions of pounds of meat and poultry products every day.
We have proof positive that our food safety policies are falling short. They are failing to protect consumers and are resulting in illness and death.
The good news is that USDA can take action now to reduce rates of Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses by proposing strong standards to reduce the level of these pathogens on poultry products.
I have worked with Senators Durbin and Gillibrand to push USDA to develop new pathogen standards for poultry parts and ground poultry, and I am encouraged that the agency has committed to publishing new Salmonella and Campylobacter standards for poultry parts and revised Salmonella standards for ground poultry products this year.
These standards are desperately needed. Without stronger standards, consumers will face continued risk of illness, and even death, from more virulent strains of Salmonella.
USDA must seize the opportunity to make real progress in protecting public health.
We are facing a pivotal moment for public health, and I believe USDA, CDC, and the poultry industry must take strong action to turn the tide on Salmonella and Campylobacter. We need new standards that set limits on dangerous pathogens in poultry products based on a goal to reduce the number of illnesses and deaths attributed to foodborne illness.
Our agriculture sector is strong and resilient, and I’m confident in the poultry industry’s ability to modify its practices to meet the challenge of new pathogen standards. Foster Farms, which was linked to the latest Salmonella outbreak, has changed its practices and significantly lowered the rate of Salmonella contamination in its poultry parts to single digits, far lower than the current industry average. Foster Farms’ success demonstrates that the goal of significantly reducing Salmonella contamination is achievable.
Pathogen standards will not solve every problem in our food safety system, but they will make a difference in reducing foodborne illness. It is my view that USDA must establish strong standards in order to safeguard our food supply and save lives.