Challenges to food safety prompt new federal action plan

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Steve Matzker/For Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

According to the Government Accountability Office, often referred to as the watchdog of Congress, government agencies need to develop more reliable metrics to monitor antibiotic resistance in livestock.

A recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts found that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is failing to protect consumers from Salmonella.

The report, "Weaknesses in FSIS's Salmonella Regulation," was released in December and calls for mandatory recall authority and more stringent testing standards.

This follows a new federal food safety action plan.

Salmonella sampling in pork products, strengthening enforcement strategies, researching lymph nodes and altering reporting methods are steps towards reducing the number one foodborne illness, according to the new Food Safety and Inspection Service Salmonella Action Plan.

Salmonellosis continues to be the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States. Finding ways to reduce Salmonella illness is a serious challenge for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety office, which is charged with keeping our food safe. The agency’s working group recently released a Salmonella Action Plan to help the agency meet the challenge.

Some recent Salmonella outbreaks have been linked to pork products; however, the Food Safety and Inspection Service does not currently sample pork products for Salmonella testing.

The action plan suggests the agency needs to develop and implement pork testing. Furthermore, a directive should be published that guides and improves sanitation conditions when dressing hogs. Reducing contamination from the carcass when the skin is removed could reduce pork Salmonella cases, states the plan.

“FSIS needs new enforcement strategies that take a systems or overall process control approach,” reads the plan. One step towards this would be to look at a company’s long-term Salmonella safety record. Additionally, posting establishments that have low to mid-level violations on the food safety agency’s website could help reduce incidents. Currently, poultry producers that have serious violations are posted online. This publicity has been linked to company’s taking action and implementing successful Salmonella reduction plans. The plan suggests posting lower level infractions could help as well.

The link between lymph nodes and Salmonella continues to be of interest. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting first reported the possible link in the Cracks in the System series. Researchers at Texas Tech University are studying the possible connection in beef cattle. Feeding cattle and chickens probiotics before they arrive at a slaughter facility is one possible way to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service reports continued research in the area of lymph nodes and pre-harvest interventions should continue.

Recently, Foster Farms – the California chicken producer at the heart of a multi-state Salmonella outbreak -- implemented a probiotic feeding program for its chickens as a step towards reducing Salmonella. This action has been cited as innovative by industry experts.

However, long-term success has yet to be determined.

The plan also suggests the need to evaluate and possibly change sampling techniques in beef and pork. In the fall new ground beef sampling standards were announced. Changes included increasing the sample size to be in line with E. coli samples and altering testing cycles.

More than 1.2 million Salmonella-related illnesses occur each year in the U.S., according the Centers for Disease Control. There are more than 2,000 strains of Salmonella; not all are associated with human illnesses. Five strains are most frequently associated with humans. For more information see Cracks in the System: The five most common strains of Salmonella.

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