Food Safety:

USDA Needs to Strengthen Its Approach to Protecting Human Health from Pathogens in Poultry Products

GAO-14-744: Published: Sep 30, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2014.

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J. Alfredo Gómez
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What GAO Found

Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken a number of actions to reduce contamination from Salmonella and Campylobacter (disease-causing organisms, i.e., pathogens) in poultry (chicken and turkey) products. USDA's actions to reduce these pathogens include, for example, tightening existing standards limiting the allowable amount of Salmonella contamination in young poultry carcasses, implementing the first standards limiting Campylobacter contamination in young poultry carcasses in 2011, and developing an action plan detailing a priority list of actions, such as developing new enforcement strategies, to reduce Salmonella . More recently, in August 2014, USDA published its final rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections, which according to the agency, will play a role in reducing Salmonella and other poultry pathogen contamination by allowing better use of agency resources, among other things.

To help assess the effects of these actions on the incidence of human illness from Salmonella and Campylobacter , USDA conducted research on the effects of agency actions to reduce these pathogens and developed performance measures for certain poultry products to help monitor progress toward agency goals. For example, USDA developed a measure to indicate whether agency actions to ensure compliance with the standard for Salmonella contamination in young chicken carcasses are helping the agency achieve its goal of maximizing domestic compliance with food safety policies. However, USDA has not developed measures for Salmonella contamination in ground poultry or young turkey carcasses, even though standards for such contamination have been in place since 1996 and 2005, respectively, or for Campylobacter contamination in young poultry carcasses. USDA believes it is not appropriate to establish measures for ground poultry until the agency has revised standards, or for Campylobacte r contamination until the agency has obtained more information on compliance levels—both of which the agency expects to do by the end of 2014. USDA officials stated that they will review the agency's strategic plan to determine what performance measures, if any, are needed. USDA does not believe a measure for young turkey carcasses is needed since historically data have shown that plants are meeting the standard but, in calendar year 2013, two plants did not meet it; USDA officials told GAO that these plants are no longer noncompliant. Without performance measures for these standards, USDA is not publicly reporting performance information and 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.

GAO identified several challenges—based, in part, on the views of 11 stakeholder groups—that could hinder USDA's ability to reduce contamination in poultry products. For example, contamination of poultry products can be affected by practices on poultry farms. To help overcome this challenge, the agency developed guidelines in 2010 on practices for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on farms, but the guidelines did not include information on the effectiveness of each of these practices, consistent with a recommendation from an agency advisory committee. USDA did not confirm that it plans to include this information in future guidelines. Without providing this information in future guidelines, USDA is not fully informing the poultry industry of the potential benefits of adopting these practices and encouraging their implementation.

Why GAO Did This Study

USDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of poultry products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet estimate that Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in food causes more than 2 million human illnesses per year. Poultry products contaminated with pathogens cause more deaths than any other commodity. GAO was asked to examine USDA's approach to reduce these pathogens in poultry products.

GAO's objectives were to (1) describe actions USDA has taken since 2006 to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in poultry products, (2) evaluate USDA's efforts to assess the effects of these actions on the incidence of human illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry products, and (3) determine challenges USDA faces in reducing these pathogens in poultry products. GAO reviewed relevant regulations and documents and interviewed officials from USDA and CDC, as well as 11 industry, consumer, and government employee stakeholder groups selected based on knowledge of USDA's poultry slaughter inspections and food safety.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that USDA develop additional performance measures for Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in poultry products and ensure future guidelines for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on farms include information on the effectiveness of each practice. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: Regarding this recommendation, FSIS developed revised performance standards for Salmonella in turkey carcasses for establishments in 2011 and reported the category status of establishments at the end of 2013. FSIS, according to the department, will establish appropriate measures and targets if establishments are not meeting the standards. We acknowledge FSIS's efforts to establish performance standards, but continue to urge the agency to develop performance measures with associated targets. Doing so would help ensure that FSIS efforts protect human health by reducing illness caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FSIS efforts protect human health by reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in FSIS-regulated poultry products, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to expeditiously develop Salmonella performance measures with associated targets for young turkey carcasses to monitor whether activities to bring plants into compliance with the standards are meeting the agency's goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The Department agreed with this recommendation. Regarding this recommendation, FSIS is committed to applying performance standards and performance measures to achieve reductions in Salmonella illnesses from contaminated poultry. The department reported to us in March 2015 that FSIS had begun sampling and testing to support efforts to revise existing standards for poultry and planned to release a Federal Register Notice with those standards "within the next few months." In February 2016, the department released a Federal Register Notice with those standards. With implementation of those standards, and adequate data to determine the percentage of industry meeting the standards, FSIS will set additional measure and targets as necessary to meet its public health goals. FSIS's draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2017 through 2021 includes a measure associated with the percentage of plants that meet pathogen reduction performance standards, but as of May 2016, the plan has yet to be finalized with the measure and any associated targets. We acknowledge FSIS's efforts and continue to urge the agency to make progress toward full implementation of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) efforts protect human health by reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in FSIS-regulated poultry products, once FSIS revises its Salmonella standards for ground chicken and ground turkey, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to expeditiously develop Salmonella performance measures with associated targets for these products to monitor whether activities to bring plants into compliance with the standards are meeting the agency's goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: USDA also agreed with this recommendation, but as of May 2016 has not implemented it fully. The department stated in March 2015 that FSIS's pending Federal Register Notice will categorize establishments based on Campylobacter sampling results for young chickens and turkeys. FSIS will establish appropriate measures and targets and continue with appropriate actions if establishments are not meeting the standards. In February 2016, FSIS published the Federal Register Notice with categories for establishments based on Campylobacter sampling for young chickens and turkeys, among other products. We acknowledge FSIS's efforts, but urge FSIS to proactively establish appropriate measures and targets rather than reacting to a finding that establishments are not meeting standards.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FSIS efforts protect human health by reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in FSIS-regulated poultry products, once FSIS establishes plant compliance categories for Campylobacter in young chicken and turkey carcasses, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to expeditiously develop Campylobacter performance measures with associated targets for these products to monitor whether activities to bring plants into compliance with the standards are meeting the agency's goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In December 2015, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service released the draft revised compliance guideline to assist poultry establishments in controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter in raw poultry. The draft guideline included information on the effectiveness of each recommended farm practice to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in live poultry. FSIS announced the availability of and requested comment on the revised compliance guideline in a December 2015 Federal Register Notice. As of August 2016, FSIS has not finalized the draft revised compliance guideline, but the agency anticipates finalizing the draft guideline in fiscal year 2017; moreover, the guideline clearly states that while the document is draft, establishments are encouraged to incorporate information in the guideline in their decision-making process, according to FSIS officials.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FSIS efforts protect human health by reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in FSIS-regulated poultry products, in future revisions of the compliance guidelines on controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to ensure the inclusion of information on the effectiveness of each recommended farm practice to reduce these pathogens in live poultry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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