USDA is getting tougher on Salmonella in chicken products

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – The federal government on Monday announced proposed new regulations that would force food processors to reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria found in some raw chicken products or risk being shut down.

Proposed US Department of Agriculture rules would make salmonella in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products an adulterant — a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness. This includes many frozen foods found in grocery stores, including chicken cordon bleu and chicken Kyiv products, which appear to be cooked through but are only heat treated to set the batter or breading.

The agency informed producers of the proposed changes on Friday.

USDA Assistant Undersecretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin said this is the start of a broader effort by the agency to curb disease caused by salmonella, which kills 1.3 million Americans each year. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it sends more than 26,000 of them to hospitals and causes 420 deaths.

Food is the source of most of these diseases.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 25 packs of chicken sold in grocery stores contains salmonella bacteria.

Since 1998, breaded and stuffed raw chicken products have been linked to 14 salmonella outbreaks and approximately 200 diseases, the USDA said in a statement. An outbreak last year linked to frozen breaded raw chicken products caused 36 illnesses in 11 states and sent 12 people to hospitals.

The USDA currently has performance standards that poultry processors must meet to reduce contamination, but the agency cannot prevent product from being sold. Eskin also does not have an adequate test system to determine the salmonella content in meat.

The proposed new rules require routine testing at chicken processing plants. Products would be considered adulterated if they exceeded very low levels of Salmonella contamination and would be subject to regulatory action, including the closure of plants that fail to reduce the concentration of Salmonella bacteria in their products, Eskin said.

“This action and our overall Salmonella initiative underscores our belief that it is our job to ensure consumers don’t get sick from meat and poultry products,” she said. “They shouldn’t be sold if they’re contaminated enough to make people sick.”

In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step, declaring some strains of E. coli as contaminants in ground beef and beginning a testing program for the pathogen.

Eskin said the agency met with food safety experts and poultry processors to get ideas on how to reduce contamination in processing.

Officials from the National Chicken Council, a trade group, and Tyson Foods said they would hold back comments until they received details about the new USDA rule.

Diana Souder, a spokeswoman for Maryland-based Perdue Farms, also declined to comment, but noted that the company is affiliated with the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform, a group formed last year to work with the USDA and others to reduce foodborne illness from Salmonella contamination.

The new rules will be published in the Federal Register this fall and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will seek public comments before finalizing the rules and setting a date for implementation.

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