- A new report from the Consumer Federation of America calls out policymakers and politicians for failing to adequately address high rates of salmonella infections. The report claims that enforcement is lacking and urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider raw meat and poultry "adulterated" if it is contaminated with salmonella.
- Currently, major companies do not apply many salmonella reduction strategies that have been proven effective elsewhere, according to the report. Farms have a particularly bad track record. Part of that is due to an outdated and scientifically inaccurate interpretation of federal law, the report found.
- The report concludes with five policy recommendations using new research and technology that regulators might find helpful in reducing the outbreak rate and protecting consumers. The suggested steps draw on the successes of other countries in keeping food and consumers safe.
About 1.2 million people get sick from salmonella in a given year in the U.S., and about 450 people die from the infection, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last year, there have been five major salmonella outbreaks associated with meat and poultry. The new report from the CFA blames failing federal policy and weak enforcement for the widespread threat the bacteria presents.
The report specifically calls out regulators for an entrenched failure to interpret the law in responsible and scientifically sound ways. Since 1971, the USDA has opted not to treat salmonella as an adulterant, which is a category of threat that operates under a different regulatory framework. The CFA wants the USDA to change that and treat salmonella as an adulterant in raw meat and poultry, which would subject it to the same regulations as E.coli.
"Unfortunately, without a change in federal inspection policy, we can expect more of these outbreaks," Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at CFA and author of the report, said in a statement. "The standards for controlling Salmonella contamination in ground beef are woefully outdated."
This issue continues to become more pressing in the public eye as outbreaks occur. About 147,000 pounds of raw ground turkey was recalled around Thanksgiving because it was linked to a salmonella outbreak. The source of that contamination has yet to be identified. Beef has been contaminated, too. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recalled all ground beef from JBS after a salmonella outbreak that stretched across several states and just expanded that recall. And the Food Safety Inspection Service recently found the vast majority of poultry companies operate plants that fail to comply with current regulations.
In light of these recent outbreaks and revelations, the report calls for a far more comprehensive revision of policy and protocol. Its "zero tolerance" approach would mean much stricter standards. As it stands, ground beef processors have to demonstrate that no more than 7.5% of samples sent to the USDA contain salmonella, a law that dates back to 1996. In 2018, the CFA argues that number should be zero.
There have already been some changes in the industry this year. The USDA recently announced that it would, for the first time, post the names of slaughterhouses that didn't meet existing standards. This could bring greater transparency, but also opens the door for consumer and advocacy groups to demand more. A more intense regulatory climate would have an impact on business. Stricter regulations and deeper enforcement could cost food companies time and money. While the CFA sees that as a small price to pay for a safer, more reliable food system, food companies might see it differently.
In the Trump administration, increased regulation and oversight could be hard to get approved. While regulators said last year they are confident in the administration's interest in food safety — especially under USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue — the executive branch is still generally anti-regulation. Although intensifying food safety practices might not be a top priority for all legislators, as a new session of Congress begins next month, this report could still spark change.