Ground beef meat products at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

A new report released today from a congressional watchdog agency says the U.S. Department of Agriculture can do more to keep foodborne illness-causing pathogens out of meat and poultry products.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, a branch of the agriculture department, inspects approximately 6,500 meat and poultry processing plants nationwide. The inspectors test meat to ensure that salmonella and campylobacter bacteria, two common pathogens that cause roughly 2 million Americans to fall ill and each year, aren’t present in the food supply at unsafe levels.

The new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the process the USDA uses to determine safety standards for pathogens in meat is outdated. The standards for ground beef, for example, have not been updated in more than 20 years, the report said.

The GAO also found that found that the USDA had not set pathogen standards altogether for some widely available meat products, including pork chops and turkey breast.

The watchdog agency recommended that the USDA better document its process for deciding when a product needs new pathogen standards, including setting timelines for doing so.

While the USDA has guidelines for controlling salmonella on farms where beef cattle and poultry are raised, the USDA could do a better job of communicating with the pork industry the importance of on-farm practices for reducing salmonella in hogs, the report said.

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