Chickens are shown in a processing facility in 2011.

Chickens are shown in a processing facility in 2011. Lance Cheung/USDA

USDA Plans Major Reforms to Curb Salmonella in Poultry

An earlier ProPublica investigation showed that weak food safety protections have done little to stop Americans from getting sick from salmonella poisoning.

After decades of failing to reduce the incidence of one of the most common foodborne illnesses, the U.S. government may finally change the way it regulates salmonella contamination in chicken and turkey.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is considering banning poultry companies from selling raw chicken and turkey contaminated with high levels of certain types of salmonella. Under current regulations, the agency allows raw poultry to be sold in supermarkets even when food safety inspectors know it’s tainted with dangerous strains of the bacteria.

In addition, the USDA said it could require poultry companies to test flocks for salmonella before they’re slaughtered and increase monitoring inside processing plants to prevent the bacteria from spreading.

Last year, ProPublica detailed how flawed federal food safety regulations had done little to stop people from getting sick from salmonella poisoning and had allowed a virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria, known as infantis, to spread widely through the U.S. chicken supply.

After repeated interview requests from ProPublica, the USDA announced that it was rethinking its approach to salmonella a week before the investigation was published. That announcement began a yearlong effort by the agency to gather feedback from scientists, industry and consumer advocates to come up with proposals that could improve public health. The USDA said Friday that infantis is one of the types of salmonella it is considering targeting.

The USDA’s plan, which it called a “proposed framework,” is still in its early stages and is couched with language like “may propose” and “exploring.” And some elements are likely to face stiff resistance from the poultry industry. But if implemented, it would represent the most significant change in salmonella regulation in decades.

“We know that salmonella in poultry is a complex problem with no single solution,” Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety, said in a statement. “However, we have identified a series of strategic actions FSIS could take that are likely to drive down salmonella infections linked to poultry products consumption.” (FSIS stands for Food Safety and Inspection Service, the arm of the USDA that inspects meat and poultry plants.)

Every year, about 1.35 million people in the U.S. get sick from salmonella poisoning. While outbreaks have been linked to onions, peanut butter and pet turtles, the most common source is chicken.

But the USDA has been hampered in its ability to protect consumers. Unlike its counterparts in Europe, it’s not allowed to control salmonella on farms, where it often spreads. It has no power to order recalls and can only ask companies to voluntarily pull products from shelves after an outbreak. And even when it finds persistent contamination in a company’s poultry, the USDA can’t rely on those findings alone to shut a plant down.

As a result, the USDA has instead relied on publicly naming poultry plants that have high rates of salmonella. But food safety advocates have criticized that method for years because the agency tests only a tiny fraction of the poultry sold to consumers and doesn’t focus on the types of salmonella most likely to make people sick. Likewise, industry representatives have faulted the agency’s approach because it doesn’t account for how much bacteria is in a product. Greater contamination is more likely to make people sick.

To make the government’s data easier to use, ProPublica created an online database that lets consumers look up the salmonella records of the plants that processed their chicken and turkey.

The USDA’s proposal addresses many of the problems that consumer advocates — including Eskin, who worked on food safety for Pew Charitable Trusts before joining the Biden administration — have pointed out for years.

By testing flocks before they are brought into processing plants, the USDA said, it hopes to encourage poultry companies to target salmonella on farms by vaccinating birds and improving sanitation in chicken houses. Such an approach helped the turkey industry eradicate an outbreak of a virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain that had plagued turkey flocks and sickened thousands of people from 2017 to 2019.

Another proposal, to increase bacterial sampling inside plants, could help the agency pinpoint where salmonella is spreading as birds are stripped of feathers, dunked in decontaminating chemicals and cut or ground into breasts, wings and turkey burgers.

But the most far-reaching proposal that the USDA said it is exploring is to set a standard that would, for the first time, prevent highly contaminated raw chicken and turkey from being sold.

That approach would model one of the most successful food safety reforms in American history: the USDA outlawing the sale of meat tainted with a strain of E. coli called O157:H7 after several children died from eating hamburgers in the 1990s.

The agency has never done the same thing for salmonella in poultry, and doing so could set off a firestorm among chicken processors. Earlier this year, the industry’s trade group, the National Chicken Council, strongly criticized an agency proposal to ban low levels of salmonella in a far less popular product: frozen breaded raw stuffed chicken breasts like chicken cordon bleu and chicken Kiev.

The poultry industry has so far taken a more moderate tone toward the USDA’s overall efforts to revamp salmonella regulation. Last year, several poultry giants, including Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Butterball, joined with consumer groups to push the USDA to update its standards. And a Cargill official was quoted in the USDA’s news release Friday as saying that the company “supports the need to develop a public health risk-based approach” to lowering salmonella illnesses.

Still, the National Chicken Council, which has long held sway over the USDA, said it was disappointed with the agency’s framework and noted that under the current testing methods salmonella rates have declined in raw chicken.

“We support the need to develop science-based approaches that will impact public health, but this is being done backwards,” said Ashley Peterson, the trade group’s senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs. “The agency is formulating regulatory policies and drawing conclusions before gathering data, much less analyzing it. This isn’t science — it’s speculation.”

The USDA emphasized that it is being methodical in its approach, gathering scientific evidence, and plans to seek additional input from industry, consumer groups and scientists.

The changes will likely take months, if not years, to take effect and could be upended by political turnover. The agency said it plans to formally propose rules next year with the goal of finalizing them by mid-2024.