Borrowing a bit from Buffalo Springfield:

There’s something happening here 
But what it is ain’t exactly clear 

Tom Vilsack was a farm state governor and a presidential aspirant. I must admit, I have long been a fan, but never, ever, thought I would see him write and Op-ed that would clearly piss off the big meat players in the United States. Tom Vilsack is now the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, and here is what he wrote in the Hill a few days ago.

As you read this, millions of Americans across the country are preparing meals for their families, friends, or themselves. Some may be racing to pack lunches for their kids, others might be preparing for a large family gathering. Regardless of the purpose of a meal, we can all relate to how food brings us together and that is why we want the safest options for all of us. When it comes to food safety, the United States has one of the strongest system in the world, but foodborne bacteria, including Salmonella, continue to sicken hundreds of thousands of people every year.

At USDA, under President Biden’s leadership, keeping all of us safe from foodborne illnesses is not only our duty, but our mission. As secretary of Agriculture, one of my key priorities is ensuring that the American public has access to a safe food supply. Our food safety system is robust, but we recognize that there is always room to improve.

Despite data showing that Salmonella contamination in poultry has been decreasing since the 1990s, there has not been a reduction in Salmonella illnesses. Every year, we see nearly 1.35 million Salmonella infections. Almost one quarter of those are attributed to poultry consumption.

When we look at these numbers, it is evident that we need to reevaluate our current approach to controlling Salmonella in poultry. Most of us agree that contaminated meat and poultry products that make consumers sick should not be sold to the American public. That is why the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is developing a new approach to better protect the American public. Recently, we announced a significant action that USDA is taking related to Salmonella in raw poultry.

This fall, USDA will take the critical step of declaring Salmonella as an adulterant — or substance that can compromise the safety of a product — in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products, a decision that will enable us to stop their sale when we find contamination. When a food product is adulterated, it cannot be sold to the public.

Breaded and stuffed raw chicken products have been a consistent source of Salmonella infections for decades and have been associated with 14 illness outbreaks. The most recent outbreak was just last year and resulted in illnesses across 11 states. At the root of these outbreaks is the fact that people often do not realize these items are raw because the outside of the product may appear browned and cooked. This misleads consumers to believe that what they are about to eat has already been cooked to a safe temperature, leading some to ignore cooking instructions. Efforts to improve labeling of these products have not led to a reduction in outbreaks.

This announcement is important because it is the first time that Salmonella is being declared an adulterant in a class of raw poultry products. But it is just the first step in our efforts. We know that to move closer to our national public health targets, we must continue taking decisive action to control Salmonella in all poultry products. 

In the fall, FSIS will be presenting a proposed framework for a new comprehensive strategy to reduce Salmonella illnesses linked to poultry and convening a public meeting to discuss it. The main components of our proposed framework include: enforceable final product standards aimed at ensuring that poultry products with levels or types of Salmonella contamination that make people sick are not sold to consumers; modifications to our slaughter and processing regulations to better ensure that Salmonella contamination is reduced throughout the slaughter and production process; and a requirement that Salmonella test results accompany each flock as it enters the establishment.

As we have done throughout this process, USDA will continue to collaborate extensively with all stakeholders on this new strategy that better protects consumers from foodborne illness. We will devote the necessary resources to advancing this effort and will continue listening to thoughtful feedback along the way.

When it comes to feeding Americans, even one foodborne illness is one too many. If that one illness involves your loved one — particularly a young child or older relative who can suffer serious infections, this problem ceases to be one of merely science and becomes something very personal. By addressing the dangers of Salmonella head on, we can make meaningful improvements to food safety and take one step closer to an America where this microscopic threat is reduced.

Good on ya, Secretary Tom. But, I am watching.