Senators requested GAO study of food pathogen standards in March
Oct 20 2014
Senators Feinstein, Gillibrand, Durbin call on USDA to implement stronger standards
Washington—Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) today announced the release of a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailing several major shortcomings in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety regulations.
In response to the report, Senators Feinstein, Gillibrand and Durbin wrote a new letter to USDA to urge them to publish new pathogen standards based on the GAO’s recommendations.
Senators Feinstein and Gillibrand requested the GAO’s report in March to evaluate the effectiveness of pathogen standards implemented by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the federal agency responsible for the safety and proper labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products.
The report emphasizes the pressing need for FSIS to upgrade its food safety monitoring. It specifically highlights bacteria from poultry products – Salmonella and Campylobacter – as areas of concern for the safety of America’s food supply, and emphasizes that they are not being sufficiently monitored by the FSIS.
According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these pathogens are two of the top five contributors to foodborne illnesses, and hospitalization and death resulting from foodborne illness in the United States. The report also urges the FSIS to strengthen its standards for the level of pathogens on poultry.
“The GAO report confirms that USDA’s pathogen standards for poultry products do not adequately protect public health,” said Senator Feinstein. “Strong new standards are desperately needed to reduce contamination and safeguard consumers from Salmonella and Campylobacter. I urge USDA to finalize strong standards, which it has committed to doing before the end of the year, so they can be implemented and improve food safety.”
“We have to be vigilant in protecting our families when it comes to ensuring the safety of our food,” said Senator Gillibrand. “This GAO report confirms what we suspected, the government isn't doing enough to ensure the safety of our food supply. We have to bring our food production and inspection systems into the 21st century.”
“Today’s GAO report serves as proof that our government needs to be doing more when it comes to food safety and ridding our food supply of dangerous pathogens,” said Senator Durbin. “The USDA should not wait any longer to finalize new, stronger pathogen standards for poultry products being sold in the United States. Improving these standards will protect public health and improve food safety for consumers nationwide.”
The GAO report includes a list of recommendations for USDA to incorporate into its food oversight operations:
1.USDA should revise its Salmonella standards for ground chicken and turkey products and create performance measure to track plant compliance and progress to Agency’s goals.
2.USDA should develop Salmonella and Campylobacter performance measures for whole turkey products.
3.USDA should develop Campylobacter compliance categories and performance measures with targets to track plant compliance and progress to Agency’s goals.
4.USDA should include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices that can reduces Salmonella and Campylobacter pathogens in their compliance guidelines
The full text of the senators’ letter is included below:
October 20, 2014
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
We write to again urge the Department to publish pathogen standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry products that will reduce rates of foodborne illness as quickly as possible. In response to an earlier letter, you committed to moving forward with pathogen standards by the end of the fiscal year, which was September 30th. However, these standards have not yet been proposed. Today, the Government Accountability Office released a report that finds the Department’s current policies for controlling these pathogens in poultry products are ineffective and outdated. It is our belief that new, strong pathogen standards must be established to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses and deaths attributed to poultry products.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that Salmonella and Campylobacter cause nearly two million foodborne illnesses, 27,500 hospitalizations, and over 450 deaths each year. It is even more troubling that the CDC reports our food safety system has not reduced the number of illnesses caused by Salmonella since 2000. Furthermore, the CDC found that as of 2013, Campylobacter illnesses have increased by 13 percent compared with the baseline number of annual illnesses that occurred between 2006 and 2008.
These alarming rates of foodborne illness are caused, in part, by the unacceptably high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination on poultry products. Routine testing done in 2013 by the Department found that over 40 percent of ground chicken tested positive for Salmonella. A national study completed by the Department in 2012 found that 26 percent of poultry parts tested positive for Salmonella and 21 percent tested positive for Campylobacter. As of today, there are no standards for poultry parts and the standards for ground poultry have not been updated since 1996.
Thank you for your attention to our request on this important public health matter. We eagerly await the release of new Salmonella and Campylobacter standards for poultry products.
United States Senator
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
United States Senator