The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced plans to reduce rampant contamination of the food supply by reducing the incidence of salmonella and campylobacter in farmed chicken and turkeys. Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is calling the move "the most significant food-safety development" from the USDA in 15 years.
The goal: 60% reduction in Salmonella contamination, and the first standards to reduce campylobacter contamination, resulting in a combined 65,000 fewer illnesses. The goal is to have 90% of farms compliant by the end of this year.
But there is a catch: The new standards are voluntary, and the USDA lacks the power to enforce them. A federal court ruling in Supreme Beef Processors, Inc. v. USDA means USDA can't close a food processing facility based solely results showing widespread contamination.
As movies like Food Inc. have vividly shown, chickens are raised in crowded, often inhumane and filthy conditions that result in widespread contamination of meat. Antibiotics are routinely administered to the birds kept in close quarters, resulting in antibacterial resistance to drugs. Poultry is routinely dunked in chlorine to kill bacteria, and even "free range"-labeled chickens may be granted only token access to the outdoors.
"These long-awaited changes will push poultry processors to improve the safety of their products," Smith said. "When HACCP (food safety legislation) was first adopted in 1996, USDA promised it would continuously update its performance standards, but the agency never delivered on this promise, until now. Performance standards are the metric for measuring whether a company is maintaining control over the pathogens that are often present on poultry, and which cause millions of illnesses each year. Beginning in July, poultry processors will be operating under a stricter testing standard for Salmonella, and for the first time, the same products will be evaluated for Campylobacter, the most common foodborne pathogen in poultry."
One key to the equation, she said: Retailers that sell chicken must avoid those companies labeled by the USDA as needing improvement, since the USDA has no enforcement power. It will be up to retailers, and consumers, to stay vigilant and use this new information to clean up the food supply.
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