National Chicken Council say birds are not source of woes

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

The federal government asserts new bacteria standards for raw broiler chickens at processing plants will prevent 65,000 illnesses over the next two years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced earlier this month that only 7.5 percent of raw chickens tested in a plant should come up positive for salmonella, down from the old standard of 20 percent, while the standard for campylobacter is being reduced from 19.6 percent to 1.7 percent of tested chickens.

A 60-day comment period is under way for the proposed rules, which fulfill a recommendation of President Barack Obama's Food Safety Working Group. The government also issued new compliance guides on reducing contamination for the poultry and cattle industries.

"We estimate that campylobacter-contaminated broilers cause 400,000 illnesses," USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman Neil Gaffney told the Capital Press in an e-mail.

"Based on FSIS' experience of setting standards, after the first two years of implementation of this new performance standard we expect a shift of about 25 percent of establishments that currently do not meet the (new) standard to meet the standard, which would avert 39,000 illnesses," he said.

Likewise, the FSIS estimates that the new salmonella standards will avert 26,000 illnesses as about 8 percent of establishments upgrade, Gaffney said.

The agency's goal is to get the broiler industry to achieve a 3.75 percent positive rate or below for salmonella, he said. Plants that achieve this goal would be placed in a top category and would not have their names published in an online list of lower-performing plants, he said.

In its comment, the National Chicken Council pledged to "work to improve the microbiological profile of raw chickens" but added the presence of salmonella in raw chickens has been going down in recent years while the prevalence of human disease has been rising.

"What kind of irks us is they say that this is going to contribute to public health," NCC spokesman Richard Lobb said. "They are relying on a document that in its own terms is more of an illustration" than an actual risk assessment, he said.

In tests of processing plants, the government samples chickens over 51 days, and if the plant exceeds the standard, the government inquires what the operation is doing to lower its levels of contamination, Lobb said.

Salmonella and campylobacter are natural phenomena that are removed by cooking the chicken, he said. Plants remove many of the contaminants by washing the carcasses down with chlorinated water, and certain measures are also taken on the farm, Lobb said.

"It is just making it more difficult," he said of the new standards. "There's no hint of what we as an industry can or should be doing to get down to 7.5 percent across the board (for salmonella).

Online

National Chicken Council: http://www.nationalchickencouncil.com/

To comment

Comment online at www.regulations.gov or by mail to Docket Clerk, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Room 2-2127, George Washington Carver Center, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Mailstop 5474, Beltsville, MD 20705-5474. All submissions received through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or by mail must reference the Food Safety and Inspection Service and include the docket number "FSIS-2009-0034."

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