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USDA gets tough on salmonella in chicken products

DES MOINES, Iowa — The federal government on Monday announced proposed new regulations that would require food processors to reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria found in certain raw chicken products or risk being shut down.

Proposed rules from the United States Department of Agriculture would declare salmonella as an adulterant – a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness – in raw breaded and stuffed chicken products. This includes many frozen foods found in grocery stores, including chicken cordon bleu and Kyiv chicken products that appear to be cooked through but are only heat-treated to set the batter or breading.

The agency notified producers of the proposed changes on Friday.

USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin said it marks the start of a broader effort by the agency to reduce illness caused by the salmonella bacteria, which sickens 1.3 million Americans every year. It sends more than 26,000 of them to hospitals and causes 420 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food is the source of most of these diseases.

The CDC reports that about one in every 25 packages of chicken sold in grocery stores contains salmonella bacteria.

Since 1998, raw breaded and stuffed chicken products have been linked to 14 salmonella outbreaks and about 200 illnesses, the USDA said in a statement. Last year, an outbreak linked to frozen breaded raw chicken products caused 36 illnesses in 11 states and sent 12 people to hospital.

The USDA currently has performance standards that poultry processing plants must meet to reduce contamination, but the agency cannot prevent the products from being sold. There is also no adequate testing system to determine salmonella levels in meat, Eskin said.

The proposed new rules require routine testing at chicken processing plants. Products would be considered adulterated when they exceed a very low level of salmonella contamination and would be subject to regulatory measures, including the closure of factories that fail to reduce levels of salmonella bacteria in their products, a said Eskin.

“This action and our global salmonella initiative underscores our view that our job is to ensure that consumers do not get sick from meat and poultry products,” she said. “They shouldn’t be sold if they’re so contaminated that people get sick.”

In 1994, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step by declaring certain strains of E. coli as a contaminant in ground beef and initiated a testing program for the pathogen.

Eskin said the agency met with food safety experts and poultry processors to come up with ideas on how to reduce contamination during processing.

Representatives from the National Chicken Council, a trade group, and Tyson Foods said they would withhold comment until they receive details of the new rule from the USDA.

Diana Souder, spokeswoman for Maryland-based Perdue Farms, also declined to comment, but pointed out the company is owned by the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform, a group formed last year to work with the USDA. and others to reduce foodborne illnesses due to salmonella contamination.

The new rules will be published in the Federal Register this fall, and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service will seek public comment before finalizing the rules and setting an implementation date.

ABC News

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