The USDA’s New Food-Safety Rules for Poultry Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

Is salmonella-free chicken and turkey really too much to ask for?
(Photo: Mel Melcon/Getty Images)
Feb 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Just in time for the Super Bowl, your chicken wings are about to get a whole lot safer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—well, maybe by next year’s big game, at least.

On Thursday, the USDA announced tougher new food-safety rules for raw chicken sold in pieces, ground chicken, and ground turkey—a move it estimates will cut the number of food-borne illnesses by an average of 50,000 cases each year. Specifically, the department is targeting the prevalence of two nasty bugs that have been a problem in the poultry industry: campylobacter and salmonella.

The rates of infection from both types of bacteria have been a concern for food-safety experts. According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of confirmed infections from salmonella remained stubbornly fixed between 2008 and 2014, while infections from campylobacter rose 13 percent.

The standards set new limits for the level of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria at poultry-processing facilities. Instead of the current 25 percent contamination rate, processes will have to limit campylobacter and salmonella to less than 15 percent of products. That’s right: The status quo is that one in four pieces of chicken carries a pathogen that can make you terribly sick. Once the new rules have been in place for a year, the USDA says it will start posting the results of testing from each facility online, a sort of shame-them-into-compliance strategy.

“These new standards, in combination with greater transparency about poultry companies’ food safety performance and better testing procedures, will help prevent tens of thousands of food-borne illnesses every year,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

As you would expect, the USDA press release is full of self-congratulation, with Al Almanza, deputy under secretary for food safety, exclaiming, “The new performance standards will complement the many other proactive, prevention-based food policies that we’ve put in place in recent years to make America’s supply of meat and poultry safer to eat.”

Not everyone agrees.

Sure, a reduction by 50,000 in the number of cases of food-borne illness each year sounds like a lot, but not so much when you consider that the CDC estimates salmonella alone causes some 1.2 million cases each year, with 360,000 of those tied to products inspected by the USDA.

One critic, William James, no less than the former chief veterinarian for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, thinks the department is taking a more or less scattershot approach to salmonella. As he pointed out in an interview with NPR, there are more than 2,000 distinct strains of the bacteria, and only a fraction of them make people sick. Instead of focusing on the contamination rate for all strains, James said, “the key here is probably to focus on those few types that are causing illness and get serious about trying to eliminate those.”

Lawyer Bill Marler, who has built a career specializing in cases involving food-borne illness, takes an even dimmer view of the USDA. In a long and apparently coincidental interview with The Washington Post published this week, Marler calls our entire food-safety system “nonsensical.” Case in point? “Like how E. coli is considered an adulterant in hamburgers, but salmonella and many other pathogens are not,” Marler told the Post. “How salmonella is allowed on chickens, which the USDA oversees, but salmonella is not allowed in any product the [Food and Drug Administration] oversees.”

Marler offers some stomach-turning insights into why the government treats salmonella differently from, say, E. coli—a baffling double standard he called “the biggest frustration—and maybe the biggest public health threat” when asked to name some of his major beefs with food safety in the U.S.

It’s enough to make anyone more than a little leery of beating the drum on behalf of the USDA’s campaign to reduce—but not eliminate—salmonella in our poultry supply.