USDA should take further action to reduce pathogens in meat and poultry products

A new report by the Government Accountability Office says the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to continue to take steps to reduce pathogens in meat and poultry products.

The U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, the GAO report said, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that salmonella and campylobacter in food still causes about 2 million human illnesses per year in the United States.

In 2014, GAO identified challenges USDA faced in reducing pathogens in poultry products, including standards that were outdated or nonexistent and limited control over factors that affect pathogen contamination outside of meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants, such as practices on the farm.

GAO was asked to review USDA’s approach to reducing pathogens in meat and poultry products. The report examines the extent to which USDA has developed standards for meat and poultry products and any additional steps USDA has taken to address challenges GAO identified in 2014. GAO reviewed relevant regulations, documents and data and interviewed officials from USDA and CDC, as well as 17 stakeholders representing industry, consumer groups and researchers selected based on their knowledge of USDA’s meat and poultry slaughter inspections and food safety.

What GAO found

To help ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, the USDA standards limiting the amount of salmonella and campylobacter—pathogens that can cause foodborne illness in humans—permitted in certain meat (beef and pork) and poultry (chicken and turkey) products, such as ground beef, pork carcasses and chicken breasts. However, the agency has not developed standards for other products that are widely available, such as turkey breasts and pork chops.

Further, its process for deciding which products to consider for new standards is unclear because it is not fully documented, which is not consistent with federal standards for internal control.

For example, USDA has informed stakeholders that it will take into account factors including consumption and illness data, but the agency has not documented this process going forward. Previously, USDA had developed new standards after widespread outbreaks indicated the need.

For example, in 2016, USDA concluded that new standards were needed for certain poultry products to reduce salmonella after reviewing outbreaks from these products in 2011, 2013, and 2015—outbreaks in which 794 people were sickened and one died. By documenting the agency’s process for deciding which products to consider for new standards, USDA could better ensure that such decisions will be risk-based.

USDA is taking steps to address challenges GAO identified in 2014 for reducing pathogens in poultry products, but these challenges are ongoing and could affect USDA’s ability to reduce pathogens in meat as well. For example, one challenge GAO identified is that the level of pathogens in poultry products can be affected by practices on farms where poultry are raised.

GAO recommended in 2014 that to help overcome this challenge, USDA guidelines on practices for controlling salmonella and campylobacter on farms include information on the effectiveness of each of the practices, consistent with a recommendation from a USDA advisory committee. Since GAO’s 2014 report, USDA drafted revised guidelines to include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices for controlling pathogens in poultry and beef cattle, in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

However, USDA’s draft guidelines for controlling salmonella in hogs do not contain such information. By including such information as it finalizes its draft guidelines, USDA could better inform industry of the potential benefits of adopting on-farm practices included in the guidelines and encourage implementation of such practices.

GAO is making three recommendations to the administrator of FSIS:

1. Document the agency’s process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis on which such decisions should be made.

2. Set time frames for determining what pathogen standards or additional policies are needed to address pathogens in beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts and ground pork.

3. Include available information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices to reduce the level of pathogens as it finalizes its guidelines for controlling salmonella in hogs. USDA agreed with GAO’s recommendations and described actions it will take to implement them.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].

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