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As U.S. struggles with poultry-borne disease, other countries offer lessons

Food-borne illnesses afflict more than two million Americans a year. So why do we lag behind so many other countries in prevention?

Other countries' poultry handling procedures make our approaches, established 50 and even 100 years ago, look more than a little outdated.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Ebola is still high in the headlines across American media, as editors try to simultaneously reflect and defuse ill-informed public anxiety about a disease that, while unquestionably horrific, had caused just one fatality and infected a mere handful of other people in the U.S., a majority of whom had recovered as of yesterday.

But to find coverage of two important new reports on food-borne illnesses that are estimated to afflict more than two million Americans every year — some fatally, and perhaps 20,000 so seriously that they require hospitalization — you pretty much have to turn to trade publications like Food Safety News.

That’s where I found the report on Monday’s comparative analysis of food-inspection systems in the U.S. and a selection of comparably modern and affluent nations, prepared by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Motivated in part by last year’s surge in poultry-borne salmonella infections, researchers examined the state of safeguards here and in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark.

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Their key conclusion: While none of those countries matches the U.S. in its requirement that inspectors be on site every day at every plant that processes meat and poultry, they have advanced the art of disease prevention in ways that make our approaches, established 50 and even 100 years ago, look more than a little outdated.

Outmoded focus on animal health

Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957, the CSPI/Pew report says, food safety is addressed with methods that “focus largely on ensuring that food comes only from healthy animals. They are much less effective in protecting consumers from the modern-day hazards that commonly contaminate meat and poultry products.”

Like salmonella, for example. Or campylobacter. Or that perennial favorite, E. coli.

None of the other countries studied has come up with a model system for our emulation, in the authors’ view, but several are further along in ensuring the safety of meat products as they leave the processing line, not just at the beginning.

As it happens, Monday was also debut date for tightened rules on some aspects of U.S. poultry inspection, as well as the public release date of an audit of those practices undertaken by the Government Accountability Office after the salmonella outbreaks of 2013.

The focus on poultry as a disease source is driven by hard facts: People are eating more chicken and turkey, less beef and pork with each passing year; and of all food-borne salmonella infections counted by the Centers for Disease Control in a four-year period from 2004 to 2008, 29 percent were traced to poultry.

For the statistically obsessed, the other sources broke down this way: beef 8 percent, pork 12 percent, eggs 18 percent, “vine vegetables, fruits and nuts” 13 percent, all other foods 20 percent.

Some changes, little progress

Reviewing a variety of measures that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has undertaken since 2006 in a billion-dollar program to reduce salmonella and campylobacter contamination at chicken- and turkey-processing plants, the auditors found that:

  • Though USDA has tightened its contamination standards and undertaken a range of activities to encourage greater compliance, the rate of food-borne salmonella infections has remained unchanged in CDC tallies, while campylobacter infections have gone up 13 percent.
  • Although USDA has developed ways of measuring plants’ compliance with its standards for salmonella contamination in whole chickens and turkeys, it has yet to come up with compliance metrics for cut-up or ground poultry; for campylobacter, it hasn’t yet established the metrics even for whole birds.
  • Without such measurements in place, the inspection program “cannot assess the effects of its actions related to these standards in meeting the goal of maximizing domestic compliance with food safety policies and, ultimately, protecting public health.”

You may be wondering, as I was, why the auditors make such a big deal about compliance rates rather than the contamination standards themselves.

The explanation is that under U.S. law, it’s not actually illegal to sell a chicken thigh contaminated with salmonella or a turkey breast tainted with campylobacter. Because zero contamination is considered unattainable, a percentage measure of tainted poultry products in end-of-the-line sampling is about the closest that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service can get to certifying clean food.

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Here’s the part that will make you want to be sure you’re using a good meat thermometer on your next fricassee:

In March 2011, FSIS finalized revisions to the agency’s salmonella standards for young chicken and turkey carcasses to further limit the amount of allowable contamination. Specifically, the revised standards set the expectation that no more than 7.5 percent of a plant’s young chicken carcasses (reduced from 20 percent) and 1.7 percent of a plant’s young turkey carcasses (reduced from 19.6 percent) will be contaminated with salmonella….

Specifically, for young chicken carcasses, FSIS now allows a maximum of 5 out of 51 samples collected by the agency to test positive for salmonella, compared with the previous allowed positive rate of 12 out of 51. Similarly, for young turkey carcasses, FSIS now allows a maximum positive rate of 4 out of 56 samples tested by the agency, compared with the previous allowed positive rate of 13 out of 56.

But as for the allowable number of contaminated packages of poultry pieces or ground meat … they’re working on that over at FSIS, and some new rules may be out by the end of the year.

Farm-to-fork tracking

Will those changes solve all the problems, or vault the U.S. ahead of the other countries in the CSPI survey? The answers are no and no – in the first instance, because perfection still isn’t possible, and in the second, because other countries would seem to be taking these issues more seriously.

Some innovations admired by its researchers: a farm-to-fork approach to monitoring, which samples animals and animal products for disease in a tracking system that starts long before the slaughterhouse and continues to final consumption; a real-time, open-records approach to posting inspection results so that everyone from corporate managers to consumers can see which plants are taking safety most seriously; a sliding-scale system of inspection fees that rewards good sanitation performance and punishes chronic offenders.

Alas, some parts of our evolving system may still be heading in the opposite direction. From the GAO audit:

In July 2014, USDA finalized its Poultry Modernization Rule, a controversial initiative aimed at modernizing inspection of young chickens and turkeys. Under this voluntary program, companies can elect to use the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which, among other things, reduces the number of inspectors in a plant and repositions them throughout the facility.

Poultry plants that participate in the new program rely on employees to sort birds for defects, a task formerly performed by USDA inspectors. This frees the inspectors to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, and observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service estimates that the NPS will prevent nearly 5,000 salmonella and campylobacter food-borne illnesses each year….

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Some consumer advocacy organizations and groups representing inspectors and poultry workers oppose the NPIS, claiming that it would not improve public health and would harm workers. In September 2014, Food & Water Watch, a nongovernmental organization and consumer rights group, filed a lawsuit against USDA that would stop the implementation of the new inspection program. The group claims that the new inspection program violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which requires inspection by government employees.  

The CSPI/Pew report can be found here and the GAO audit here.