Food Safety: USDA Should Take Further Action to Reduce Pathogens in Meat and Poultry Products

GAO-18-272 Published: Mar 19, 2018. Publicly Released: Apr 18, 2018.
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Fast Facts

The U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, but foodborne illness—such as salmonella poisoning—remains a common problem.

For some meat and poultry products such as ground beef, there are standards for how much harmful bacteria USDA can find when testing. However, some common products such as turkey breasts and pork chops don't have such standards. It's unclear how USDA decides which products to consider for new standards.

Also, we found that some of USDA's food safety standards are outdated, with no time frames for revision.

We made recommendations to help USDA improve its standards in a timely manner to protect public health.

(This page was changed for accuracy on the issue of time frames.)

Photo of an open refrigerator showing different foods inside

Photo of an open refrigerator showing different foods inside

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Highlights

What GAO Found

To help ensure the safety of our nation's food supply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed standards limiting the amount of Salmonella and Campylobacter —pathogens that can cause foodborne illness in humans—permitted in certain meat (beef and pork) and poultry (chicken and turkey) products, such as ground beef, pork carcasses, and chicken breasts. However, the agency has not developed standards for other products that are widely available, such as turkey breasts and pork chops. Further, its process for deciding which products to consider for new standards is unclear because it is not fully documented, which is not consistent with federal standards for internal control. For example, USDA has informed stakeholders that it will take into account factors including consumption and illness data, but the agency has not documented this process going forward. Previously, USDA had developed new standards after widespread outbreaks indicated the need. For example, in 2016, USDA concluded that new standards were needed for certain poultry products to reduce Salmonella after reviewing outbreaks from these products in 2011, 2013, and 2015—outbreaks in which 794 people were sickened and 1 died. By documenting the agency's process for deciding which products to consider for new standards, USDA could better ensure that such decisions will be risk-based.

USDA is taking steps to address challenges GAO identified in 2014 for reducing pathogens in poultry products, but these challenges are ongoing and could affect USDA's ability to reduce pathogens in meat as well. For example, one challenge GAO identified is that the level of pathogens in poultry products can be affected by practices on farms where poultry are raised. GAO recommended in 2014 that to help overcome this challenge, USDA guidelines on practices for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on farms include information on the effectiveness of each of the practices, consistent with a recommendation from a USDA advisory committee. Since GAO's 2014 report, USDA drafted revised guidelines to include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices for controlling pathogens in poultry and beef cattle, in 2015 and 2017, respectively. However, USDA's draft guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs do not contain such information. By including such information as it finalizes its draft guidelines, USDA could better inform industry of the potential benefits of adopting on-farm practices included in the guidelines and encourage implementation of such practices.

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Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that Salmonella and Campylobacter in food cause about 2 million human illnesses per year in the United States. In 2014, GAO identified challenges USDA faced in reducing pathogens in poultry products, including standards that were outdated or nonexistent and limited control over factors that affect pathogen contamination outside of meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants, such as practices on the farm.

GAO was asked to review USDA's approach to reducing pathogens in meat and poultry products. This report examines (1) the extent to which USDA has developed standards for meat and poultry products and (2) any additional steps USDA has taken to address challenges GAO identified in 2014. GAO reviewed relevant regulations, documents, and data and interviewed officials from USDA and CDC, as well as 17 stakeholders representing industry, consumer groups, and researchers selected based on their knowledge of USDA's meat and poultry slaughter inspections and food safety.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that USDA document its process for deciding which products to consider for new standards and that it include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices in its guidelines for Salmonella control in hogs. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and described actions it will take to implement them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Food Safety and Inspection Service The Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) should document the agency's process for deciding which products to consider for new pathogen standards, including the basis on which such decisions should be made. (Recommendation 1).
Closed - Implemented
As of August 2021, FSIS has finalized an internal document that outlines the agency's process for revising existing pathogen reduction performance standards, developing new performance standards, and a governance process for revising or developing new performance standards. Specifically, FSIS will determine whether a performance standard should be revised at least five years from the date FSIS begins posting establishments' names on the FSIS webpage. To assess effectiveness, FSIS will conduct a risk assessment or other analysis to determining if the public health goals set out for the performance standard have been met. FSIS will make decisions on revising performance standards based on the results of the risk assessment or other analysis. According to agency officials, If FSIS decides to update an existing performance standard or develop a new performance standard for a commodity not currently under a performance standard, FSIS will follow its standard decision-making and approval procedures, FSIS Directive 1040.1, The FSIS Enterprise Governance Decision-making Process, which outline the governance process established for presenting public health and other mission-related issues to the FSIS Management Council for action, particularly for issues that affect multiple programs. We believe these actions address the intent of our recommendation.
Food Safety and Inspection Service The Administrator of FSIS should set time frames for determining what pathogen standards or additional policies are needed to address pathogens in beef carcasses, ground beef, pork cuts, and ground pork. (Recommendation 2).
Closed - Implemented
In October 2019, FSIS proposed updated Salmonella performance standards for ground beef and new Salmonella performance standards for beef manufacturing trimmings, a primary component of ground beef. According to FSIS officials, as of March 2022, the agency is analyzing comments and is developing final standards. In addition, in February 2022, FSIS proposed Salmonella performance standard options for pork cuts and ground pork.
Food Safety and Inspection Service The Administrator of FSIS should include available information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices to reduce the level of pathogens as it finalizes its guidelines for controlling Salmonella in hogs. (Recommendation 3).
Open
According to FSIS officials, as of December 2021, the agency has conducted a literature review to identify pre-harvest (on-farm) best practices to reduce the level of Salmonella in market hogs and is revising its draft guidance titled "Compliance Guidelines for Controlling Salmonella in Market Hogs" to reflect the findings of new research. FSIS anticipates publishing the revised guidance in 2022. We will continue to monitor FSIS efforts to address this recommendation.

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