Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D., Ct.) and Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) asking the agency to delay their proposed Salmonella Action Plan because it is “inadequate to protect public health.”
Before the House Appropriations Committee March 14, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified that in December 2013 FSIS announced its Salmonella Action Plan which outlines additional steps the Agency intended to take to address Salmonella, including developing performance standards for chicken parts based on FSIS baseline results.
“FSIS has seen declines in the total number of illnesses attributed to FSIS-regulated products – between FY 2011 and FY 2013, the total number of such illnesses fell 13%, which equates to about 64,000 illnesses over the two-year period,” Vilsack shared.
The plan was crafted in response to an ongoing outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg which has sickened 481 people, with a hospitalization rate of approximately 40% -- twice the normal average for outbreaks of Salmonella Heidelberg.
“Substantial concerns have been raised about the proposal and there is a conspicuous lack of evidence that the proposed changes will reduce foodborne pathogens,” DeLauro and Slaughter wrote. “Considering the paucity of data and lack of comprehensive, external peer review, we are not convinced that this plan will either reduce Salmonella infection or promote public health.”
The two stated the plan mirrors the HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which they argue has no track record of reducing foodborne illnesses and ignores the most proven way to reduce foodborne illness: microbial testing. A joint release from the two further explained there are no provisions in the modernization plan mandating microbial testing for Salmonella and Campylobacter, the two pathogens most commonly associated with raw poultry.
“Given the uptick in antibiotic-resistant infections resulting from overuse of antibiotics on the farm, microbial testing is essential in any plan designed to protect the public health,” the release noted.
Slaughter and DeLauro argue that one particular aspect of the plan would make meat even less safe. In the plan, the USDA proposed slashing official inspectors by 75%, instead allowing poultry producers to police themselves, while increasing the number of chickens inspected per minute from 140 chickens per minute to 175 and from 45 turkeys per minute to 55.
The representatives asked the USDA to halt the implementation of the Salmonella Action Plan until the following issues are addressed:
1. Each proposed change must be assessed independently and scientifically to identify its effects.
2. USDA must document and make public the number of microbial tests performed per bird; the impact of the frequency and specific type of off-line inspection can then be assessed with regard to microbial load.
3. There must be system-wide requirements for the testing of Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry plants.
4. USDA has already collected data on the microbial contamination of chicken parts. Instead of waiting for industry to collect its own version of the same data and to implement its own, unenforceable standards, USDA must implement its own performance standards on chicken parts as soon as possible.