WASHINGTON—An unprecedented coalition of consumer groups, illness survivors, poultry industry leaders, academic scientists, and other food safety leaders are seeking a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make a united case for a modernized, science-based regulatory approach to ensure the food safety of poultry products.
Poultry producers Butterball, Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, and Wayne Farms aligned with four consumer groups—the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and Stop Foodborne Illness—on key poultry food safety principles and jointly asked for modernized USDA poultry food safety standards that are “objective, risk-based, achievable, enforceable and flexible” enough to adapt to evolving science.
Illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter, which are commonly found on poultry, account for 70 percent of the foodborne illnesses tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These bacteria sicken 3 million people and cost about $6 billion annually. While the federal government set targets for decreased Salmonella and Campylobacter infections as part of its Healthy People 2020 goals, released in 2010, the U.S. failed to meet those targets. Rates of illnesses caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter have remained essentially unchanged.
Besides officials at the companies and the consumer groups, the request to Vilsack was signed by several survivors of foodborne illness, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, Mike Robach, former Cargill food safety quality and regulatory head and former Global Food Safety Initiative Board chairman, and three of the country’s most prominent academic food safety experts, Drs. Craig Hedberg, J. Glenn Morris, and Martin Weidmann. Former senior USDA food safety officials Michael Taylor, Brian Ronholm, and Jerry Mande also added their signatures.
“While progress on reducing foodborne illness has been at a standstill, scientific knowledge of Salmonella has greatly increased and recognized best practices for Campylobacter and other pathogens has advanced,” the parties wrote to Vilsack. “Science tells us that current performance standards do not effectively target the particular types of Salmonella and the levels of bacteria that pose the greatest risks of illness, and the overall regulatory framework does not adequately harness modern tools for preventing and verifying control of the bacteria that are making people sick.”
“Everyone involved in the production and processing of poultry is invested in producing the safest products possible,” said Mike Robach. “But we all recognize that a modern, risk-based and science-based approach to food safety is necessary both to control pathogens and to promote consumer confidence in the safety of the poultry supply.”
“The science has grown by leaps and bounds since I led USDA’s efforts to create the current poultry standards in the 1990s,” said Michael Taylor, who served as Administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 1994 to 1996. “It was the best we could do at the time, but what we know now makes the standards on the books no longer defensible.”
“When the federal government fails to meet its own goals for reducing the incidence of foodborne illness, it’s clear that a new approach is needed,” said CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs Sarah Sorscher. “Our coalition of consumer groups, academic experts, poultry companies, and survivors of foodborne illness stands ready to support Secretary Vilsack and the USDA team in modernizing our poultry safety system.”
More information about the campaign to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses due to poultry is available at https://stopfoodborneillness.org/safer-poultry-for-everyone/.