Ashley Peterson, PhD—Sr. VP of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, National Chicken Council
Consumer preference has changed with regards to the chicken they are purchasing. Buying a whole chicken at the grocery to take home and prepare is not as common as it used to be and, in fact, only represents about ten percent of the chicken products U.S. consumers are putting in their shopping carts. This is important information for the U.S. chicken industry as well as United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), as these two groups share a common goal, which is to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken products. Knowing what our consumers are purchasing allows both the industry and FSIS to focus efforts on those products.
Since the original performance standards for young chicken carcasses were established, the broiler chicken industry has made considerable progress in driving down the prevalence of both Salmonella and Campylobacter - a four-fold decrease - as evidenced by FSIS data on whole bird rinses. But what has that really done to impact public health? Despite a significant drop (a 9 percent decrease) in human illnesses from Salmonella in recent years, salmonellosis remains a serious concern in the U.S. leaving the industry and the federal government searching for answers.1 So there is an open question: will increased efforts by both the industry and FSIS to address Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry parts impact public health? Only time will tell.
As background, in early 2012, FSIS collected nearly 2,500 chicken parts from federally-inspected chicken establishments in order to determine a prevalence baseline for both Salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken parts. FSIS determined that the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken parts were 26.3% and 21.4%, respectively.2 Even before a performance standard was developed for chicken parts, the industry began researching various interventions, equipment design and application techniques in both first and second processing with the goal of reducing the prevalence of both Salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken parts. In a collaborative manner, chicken processors have been working closely with experts, equipment suppliers, antimicrobial suppliers, FSIS and others to explore opportunities, challenges, and potential solutions—which has led to the improved foods safety results we are seeing today.
In February 2016, FSIS published the new chicken parts performance standard in the Federal Register - "New Performance Standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter in Not-Ready-to-Eat Comminuted Chicken and Turkey Products and Raw Chicken Parts and Changes to Related Agency Verification Procedures: Response to Comments and Announcement of Implementation Schedule." This document finalized reduction standards for Salmonella (15.4%) and Campylobacter (7.7%) on raw chicken parts and not-ready-to-eat (NRTE) comminuted chicken products. The new pathogen reduction performance standards target the products that are commonly consumed in the U.S. â€“ specifically breasts, wings, legs and comminuted poultry - and specify the maximum number of samples out of 52 total samples that may test positive while still meeting the performance standard.3 Although the standard is not strictly regulatory in nature, it is intended to encourage pathogen reduction through categorizing establishments into three tiers (Category 1, 2 or 3) based on how closely they meet the standard. The notice additionally announced that FSIS would change its' sampling program from a "set-based" approach of testing a given number of product samples in a given number of consecutive days, to a routine, "moving window" approach, in which FSIS would test product samples weekly to obtain an average performance metric.
The new standards took effect on July 1, 2016, along with the first set of establishment-specific category posting for whole birds. Along with the new standards came an unexpected change in the sampling program, with FSIS switching from the buffered peptone water (BPW) traditionally used for all prior sampling, to new, neutralized buffered peptone water (nBPW) based on substantial public pressure and an Agricultural Research Service study contending that the previously-used BPW may not adequately neutralize commonly-used antimicrobial treatments. This change in sampling technique raises significant questions about the scientific validity of comparing performance standard samples collected using nBPW with the baseline samples collected using traditional BPW. The impact that the nBPW may have on the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on carcasses, parts and comminuted chicken products is still being discussed within FSIS.
With all of the changes and challenges around the verification testing for Salmonella and Campylobacter, the natural question is how these factors may impact the publicly available category results. Since the implementation of the new performance standards and the change to nBPW, the percentage of all establishments meeting Category 1 standards for Salmonella on whole birds has dropped from approximately 91 percent to 68 percent, with the percentage of large establishments meeting Category 1 standards dropping from 95 percent to 74 percent. Similarly, for chicken parts, the percentage of all establishments meeting Category 1 standards for Salmonella has dropped from 42 percent to approximately 38 percent, and large establishments meeting Category 1 standards has dropped from 50 percent to about 41 percent.4 (Data are current as the FSIS aggregate dataset for the period November 8, 2015, through January 28, 2017). The percentage of all establishments, and large establishments, meeting Category 1 standards for Campylobacter on whole birds and chicken parts has remained largely unchanged.
Preventing consumer exposure to foodborne pathogens will continue to be the goal of the industry and FSIS, and it requires the teamwork of FSIS, the broiler industry, and consumers to achieve the best results. Though the pathogen performance standard for chicken products serves as a starting point for encouraging process control, there is clear room for improvement in this program. More accurate indications of process control may be achieved by consistent and scientifically rigorous sampling. The broiler chicken industry will continue to develop innovative methods to control Salmonella and Campylobacter during processing, and to work with FSIS to produce a safe, wholesome chicken product.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Incidence and Trends of Infection with Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food - Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network, 10 U.S. Sites, 2006-2013. April 18, 2014. 63(15); 328-332.
2United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Office of Public Health Science, Microbiology Division. The Nationwide Microbiological Baseline Data Collection Program: Raw Chicken Parts Survey. January 2012 - August 2012. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/shared/PDF/Baseline_Data_Raw_Chicken_Parts.pdf.
3New Performance Standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter in Not-Ready-to-Eat Comminuted Chicken and Turkey Products and Raw Chicken Parts and Changes to Related Agency Verification Procedures: Response to Comments and Announcement of Implementation Schedule. 81 Fed. Reg. 7285 (February 11, 2016).
4United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Salmonella and Campylobacter Verification Testing Program Monthly Reports: Aggregate Salmonella and Campylobacter Categorization for Young Chicken and Turkey Carcasses, Raw Chicken Parts, and NRTE Comminuted Poultry Establishments (Nov. 8, 2015 - Jan. 28, 2017). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/e6b2e91e-d9d6-4a58-82cc-3e832e256490/establishment-categories-aggregate-201702.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.