– REVIEWED –

By Mitzi D. Baum and James Kincheloe

The recent media coverage and public outcry over illnesses and two infant deaths associated with recalled powdered infant formula due to Cronobacter contamination is the most recent example that unsafe food is unacceptable. A recent poll of voters, asking about perceptions on Salmonella in poultry, quantified the high level of public concern regarding food safety and demonstrated that lawmakers must take action to address this public health issue, starting with Salmonella.

Annually, an estimated 1.35 million people in the United States suffer from a Salmonella infection. Contaminated poultry accounts for roughly 23 percent of these illnessesthe largest share of any product category. And while our scientific understanding of how to preventSalmonella contamination in chicken and turkey has advanced greatly, the regulatory system for Salmonella in poultry has stagnated fordecades.

The numbers speak for themselves, but food safety is about more than numbers. It’s about human beings, like the Craten family. In 2013, Amanda Craten’s 18-month-old son, Noah, battled a Salmonella infection caused by contaminated chicken. The infection seeded his brain, creating abscesses that required brain surgery, causing permanent damage that Noah and his family must manage daily.

To date, efforts to reduce Salmonella have not succeeded to the extent public health demands. Every decade, the US Department of Health and Human Services sets Healthy People public health objectives. The 2030 Salmonella annual illness rate target is nearly the same as the 2020 target. More importantly, the number of illnesses per year did not substantially change in the previous decade (about 15 illnesses per 100,000 people). In fact Salmonella illness rates have remained constant or increased since 1997.

The public weighed in on the issue through a new national poll of 1,000 registered voters sponsored by the nonprofit public health organization Stop Foodborne Illness (STOP). The poll showed overwhelming bipartisan support for reform in the poultry food safety system. The vast majority of voters, 87%, know about Salmonella poisoning and illnesses related to contaminated poultry. Almost the same number, a striking 86%, would like to see the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopt stricter regulations in poultry production aimed at reducing Salmonella-related illnesses.

The results showed nearly identical support for making standards enforceable. Current poultry standards are unenforceable and allow poultry products from slaughter plants that fail Salmonella testing to be sold to consumers with the USDA “mark of inspection” on the package, based on the assumption that consumers will control the risks by safely handling and cooking the meat.

STOP and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), along with Consumer Reports and Consumer Federation of America, are working to translate consumer concern into action. Last year, along with Amanda and other consumers affected by Salmonellawe petitioned USDA to reform the standards for Salmonella in poultry to make them science-based and enforceable. Our petition asks USDA to craft its regulations to prioritize preventing contamination by the types of Salmonella most likely to cause human illness.

Consumers are not the only supporters of change. Leading poultry industry members, food safety scientists, and current and former regulators joined us last year to form the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform and push for effective regulation. The Coalition declared that the current standard is not working for those it is supposed to protect – consumers – and asked the USDA to create better standards.

This wide range of stakeholders publicly uniting and working for reforms with immense public support is rare, and signals that change is needed now and is politically feasible. USDA Secretary Vilsack has begun to take action, launching an effort by the agency to revamp the poultry system to reduce Salmonella illnesses.

Even with immense support for reform, the road ahead may not be smooth. There will be disagreements as some stakeholders may believe that, despite advances in science, more time and research are needed to create “perfect” standards. Others may support only modest modifications to the existing system, like tailoring the current standards to focus on riskier Salmonella types but falling short of making them enforceable. But 1.35 million people per year cannot wait for perfection and will not settle for a business-as-usual approach to regulation. Instead, the regulatory system must be transformed to yield meaningful change in the present, while remaining adaptable enough to advance as the science improves.

Success in reforming regulations and reducing Salmonella illnesses is far from guaranteed, but Congress can help drive the needed change. By publicly prioritizing food safety, legislators can both elevate an issue that is important to their constituents and raise the pressure on USDA to be bold. It goes without saying that Congress allocating additional resources to USDA for regulatory reform will facilitate the process.

It’s not every day that we have such an opportunity to improve the safety of the food supply. Modern, science-based poultry safety reform that puts consumers first can be a win for us all.

About the authors: Mitzi Baum M.Sc. is the CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, The Voice for Safe Food. James Kincheloe DVM, MPH is the food safety campaign manager at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, America’s Food and Health Watchdog.

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