Talking Turkey on Food Safety

Posted on February 09, 2015
The U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that each year roughly:
  • 48 million Americans (1 in 6) get sick from foodborne diseases,
  • 128,000 are hospitalized, and
  • 3,000 die.
In 2007, we added food safety to our High Risk list, and today’s WatchBlog highlights some of the challenges to keeping food safe. What’s Driving Food Safety Challenges? Nationally, these three trends increase foodborne disease risks:
  1. More of our food is imported,
  2. Consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods, and
  3. There are greater numbers of people (such as immune-compromised individuals) who are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
In addition to these environmental and food trends, federal oversight of food safety is fragmented. Fifteen federal agencies are responsible for overseeing at least 30 food safety laws. The agencies with primary responsibility are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We’ve suggested a government-wide performance plan to help address these issues, but, as we reported in December 2014, this has not yet happened. Examining the Poultry Pipeline For a closer look at a food safety issue, let’s examine the oversight of poultry production. Americans are eating more chicken and turkey than beef or pork. When those poultry items are contaminated, they cause more deaths than any other food product. CDC estimated that foods contaminated with salmonella and other pathogens cause more than 2 million illnesses each year, and the biggest source of that is from poultry, as shown below.

GAO-14-744(Excerpted from GAO-14-744)

USDA has taken several steps to reduce poultry contamination. As we reported in September 2014, USDA has
  • revised down the amount of allowable salmonella contamination,
  • publicized when chicken slaughter plants do not comply with salmonella standards,
  • developed a salmonella Action Plan, and
  • finalized a rule to modernize the poultry slaughter inspection process.
Nonetheless, USDA faces ongoing challenges regarding contamination in poultry products. For example, its food safety and inspection service has limited control outside of slaughter plants—before or after poultry goes through the plant. We’ve made multiple recommendations to USDA to help reduce contamination in poultry products. You can track the status of these and all of our open recommendations in our recommendations database. Learn more in our podcast: