The federal government on Monday announced proposed new rules that would force food processors to reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria found in some raw chicken products, or to reduce the risk of closure.
Proposed regulations from the US Department of Agriculture would declare salmonella an adulterant — a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness — in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products. This includes many frozen foods found in grocery stores, including Chicken Cordon Bleu and Chicken Kyiv products, which are cooked but only heat-treated to set the batter or breading.
The agency notified makers of the proposed changes on Friday. USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin said this is the start of a broader agency effort to reduce diseases caused by the Salmonella bacteria, which sicken 1.3 million Americans each year. It sends more than 26,000 of them to hospitals and causes 420 deaths, according to data from Disease Control and Prevention.
The source of most of those diseases is food. The CDC says that approximately one in every 25 packages of chicken sold at grocery stores contains salmonella bacteria.
Since 1998, breads and stuffed raw chicken products have been linked to 14 salmonella outbreaks and nearly 200 diseases, the USDA said in a statement. Last year an outbreak tied to frozen breaded raw chicken products caused 36 illnesses in 11 states and sent 12 people to hospitals.
The USDA has performance standards that poultry processing plants must meet to minimize contamination, but the agency cannot prevent products from being sold. There is also no adequate testing system to determine salmonella levels in meat, Eskin said.
The proposed new regulations require regular testing at chicken processing plants. Products will be considered adulterated when they exceed very low levels of salmonella contamination and will be subject to regulatory action, including shuttering plants that fail to reduce the levels of salmonella bacteria in their products, Eskin said.
“This action and our overall Salmonella initiative underscore our view that our job is to ensure that consumers do not get sick from meat and poultry products,” she said. “They should not be sold if they are contaminated to such an extent that people become ill.”
In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step by declaring certain strains of E. coli in ground beef as contaminated and began a testing program for the pathogen.
Eskin said the agency discussed with food safety experts and poultry processors how to reduce contamination in processing.
Representatives for the National Chicken Council, a trade group, and Tyson Foods said they would withhold comment until they received details of the new USDA rule.
Diana Souder, a spokeswoman for Maryland-based Perdue Farms, also declined to comment, but pointed out that the company belongs to the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform, which worked with the USDA and others last year to address foodborne illnesses from salmonella contamination. A group formed to reduce
The new rules will be published in the Federal Register this fall and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will seek public comment before the rules are finalized and set for an implementation date.