Foul Fowl? Why Your Thanksgiving Turkey May Be Getting Riskier

As we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner in a couple of days, we might be worried about who gets the drumstick or whether our crazy uncle will dominate the conversation. But we’re probably not worrying about whether the turkey is safe to eat because we’ve had a robust food inspection system in place for over a hundred years. That might be changing – parts of our food inspection system may not be keeping up with the threats posed by our current food production system.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with ensuring the safety of our nation’s poultry products. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that FSIS needs to improve its efforts to ensure poultry producers are complying with bacterial contamination limits and preventing foodborne illnesses.

Salmonella and Campylobacter are the most common types of disease-causing bacteria in poultry products, and together they cause more than 2 million illnesses, 27,000 hospitalizations, and more than 450 deaths in the U.S. each year. Poultry products contaminated with pathogens cause more deaths than any other type of food.

The federal government first set Salmonella contamination standards for young whole chickens, ground chicken, and ground turkey in 1996 and for young whole turkeys in 2005. Standards further limiting the allowable amount of both Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in young chickens and turkeys were adopted in 2011, and FSIS indicated it expected to propose updated standards for ground chicken and turkey by the end of FY 2014.

The FSIS has developed performance measures to assess how well the poultry industry is complying with efforts to control Salmonella contamination in young whole chickens. Unfortunately, no such performance measures have been set for Salmonella contamination in ground poultry or young whole turkeys or for limiting Campylobacter contamination in young chickens and turkeys. Without efforts in place to assess and publicly report how well they’re doing in limiting these contaminants, FSIS (and Congress and the public) has no way of knowing whether these programs are meeting their targets.

The report also notes that while FSIS developed guidelines for producers in 2010 outlining the best practices for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on farms, it failed to include information on the comparative effectiveness of these practices, so producers can’t judge the benefits of different methods of controlling bacteria on poultry farms. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for producers and agencies to keep contaminated food off store shelves and family dinner tables. 

Beef contaminated with a common strain of E. coli bacteria is not allowed in stores and restaurants because the bacteria is classified as an “adulterant,” but raw poultry products contaminated by Salmonella (even antibiotic-resistant strains) can still be sold since FSIS has not similarly classified these bacteria as adulterants. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) resubmitted a petition to FSIS requesting that it classify several types of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as adulterants in both meat and poultry, after a similar petition on the same issue was denied in July of this year.

Complicating matters further for government regulators is the fact that FSIS lacks mandatory recall authority. A 2001 court decision limited the agency's ability to shut down facilities that violate the existing Salmonella standard.

As more and more of the food we eat comes from “factory farms” and facilities that keep and process large numbers of animals in tight quarters, the risk of contamination from fecal matter and other waste materials will increase. It is critical that we modernize our health and safety standards to address these new risks, require farms to comply with them, and publicly report the results of these efforts. Manufacturing companies face mandatory recalls and possible shutdowns when they market defective products; food producers should also face mandatory recalls and shutdowns when they produce contaminated food. Ultimately, it’s our health that’s at stake.

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