Federal officials Wednesday proposed new standards for permissible levels of salmonella contamination in ground poultry and poultry parts such as breasts, thighs and wings -- a move that could prevent 50,000 cases of food-borne illness a year.
The proposal marks the first time federal inspectors have issued standards for poultry parts, which represent the majority of the poultry products available to U.S. consumers.
Poultry separated into parts and ground meat tends to have higher rates of contamination because of greater exposure to handling and machinery.
Though the standards are voluntary, failure to meet them invites more scrutiny by inspectors and potentially less business.
“Today, we are taking specific aim at making the poultry items that Americans most often purchase safer to eat,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday. “This is a meaningful, targeted step that could prevent tens of thousands of illnesses each year.”
The proposed standards come at a time when the poultry industry and federal inspectors have been under growing pressure to take a harder stance on salmonella contamination. Hundreds of people were sickened nationwide starting in 2013 by an outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken processed in California.
Some of the strains of salmonella linked to the outbreak showed signs of resistance to antibiotics -- creating a flashpoint in the nation's debate over how farm animals are raised and slaughtered.
Unlike E. coli, inspectors don’t have the power to force recalls or shutdown poultry plants over salmonella contamination alone. That’s because officials deem the bacteria to be naturally occurring and too prevalent to ever eradicate (though smaller European countries have come close).
As a result, the government and the poultry industry urge consumers to handle chicken and turkey with care by reducing cross contamination and cooking meat to a minimum of 165 degrees.
Under the new proposal, the percentage of chicken parts found to contain salmonella cannot exceed 15.4%, down from the current sampled average of 24%. Salmonella in ground chicken would be limited to 25%, down from an average of 49%.
Ground turkey would be limited to 13.5%, down from an average of about 20%.
Standards for whole chickens are already in place, limiting salmonella contamination to under 10%, though the industry average stands at 7.5%.
The proposal also addresses campylobacter, a type of bacteria that causes symptoms similar to those seen in salmonella contamination: abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and nausea.
Poultry industry officials said they were reviewing the new standards, but emphasized that producers have been driving down rates of salmonella and campylobacter for years without similar rules.
“This is something the industry has been proactively working to address, so when the performance standards for chicken parts are put in place by [the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service], we will be meeting or exceeding the standards, as we currently do for whole carcasses,” said Ashley Peterson, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council.
Foster Farms said in a separate statement Wednesday that salmonella is found on 5% of its sampled chicken parts, the result of $75 million worth of food safety upgrades implemented at its facilities since the 2013 outbreak.
A 60-day public comment period for the proposal could begin as soon as next week. If approved, the standards are expected to take effect this year.