Published by permission from The National Chicken Council. originally printed May 12, 2015.
Food safety is the top priority for companies that produce and process chicken products in the United States, and the industry prides itself on delivering safe, affordable and wholesome food both domestically and abroad. Chicken producers continue to meet food safety challenges head-on and have done an outstanding job of improving the microbiological profile of raw products.
Who oversees and regulates chicken processing plants? The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is responsible for inspection at broiler chicken processing facilities (those facilities that process chickens for meat). The U.S. meat and poultry inspection system complements industry efforts to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged. Rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken products produced in the United States, and all imported chicken products must also meet these federal standards. All chicken products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by FSIS in order to reach American consumers. By law, a chicken plant cannot operate without FSIS inspectors on site.
What is HACCP? Since 1996, the meat and poultry industries have been operating under Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP). Originally developed for NASA to ensure the safety of food provided for astronauts in outer space, HACCP is a systematic, science-based and preventive approach to food safety that addresses potential biological, chemical and physical contamination of food products. Written HACCP plans consist of measures to protect the food from unintentional contamination at critical control points. HACCP is used in the meat and poultry industry as a preventative approach to identify potential food safety hazards so that key actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate these risks. All plants must also, by law, maintain written Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures to maintain the cleanliness and sanitation in food processing environment. FSIS inspectors continuously ensure that HACCP plans and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures are being followed.
What is Salmonella? Salmonella are microscopic living organisms found worldwide in cold- and warm-blooded animals and occur naturally in birds’ intestines. Salmonella may be present in a perfectly healthy bird with no negative health effects.
Are all types of Salmonella created equal? No. There are more than 2,000 different strains of Salmonella, the majority of which are not harmful to humans. Most of these Salmonella strains do not make consumers sick if exposed to them.
What are chicken producers doing to make sure they don’t end up on chicken products? Proper handling and cooking in the kitchen is the last step in keeping Salmonella off of chicken, not the first. It all starts even before the egg. Healthy breeder flocks lead to healthy chicks – measures are taken to prevent diseases from passing from hen to chick and to ensure that natural antibodies are passed on, which help keep the birds healthy. At the hatchery, strict sanitation measures and appropriate vaccinations ensure the chicks are off to a healthy start.
At the feed mill, the finished feed of corn and soybean meal is heat treated, which kills any bacteria that may be present. On the farm, farmers adhere to strict biosecurity measures and the chickens are routinely monitored by a veterinarian to keep them healthy. At processing plants, the U.S. federal meat and poultry inspection system complements efforts by chicken processors to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged. Chicken processing facilities use a variety of strategies at key points that include: written HACCP plans; the use of food-grade rinses that kill or reduce the growth of bacteria; organic sprays to cleanse the chickens and inhibit bacteria; strict sanitation procedures; and metal detectors to make sure that no foreign object makes its way into a product. Microbiological tests for pathogens are then conducted by companies and federal laboratories to help ensure that food safety systems are working properly.
Are these processes working? What does the data show? According to the most recent government data available: 98.5% of tests for Salmonella are negative for whole chickens at large plants. Chicken producers have reduced Salmonella on whole chickens 66% over the past five years. Since FSIS began testing chicken for Campylobacter in 2011, the industry has reduced the incidence by 30 percent. Americans on average eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, almost all of them eaten safely.
Those tests are for whole chickens. What about chicken parts? FSIS will soon be implementing a first ever performance standard for chicken parts, e.g. legs, breasts and wings, as part of its Salmonella Action Plan. Since the fall of 2013, the entire chicken industry has been collectively exploring new approaches and technologies to reduce contamination on chicken parts in order to provide the safest product possible to our consumers, including strengthened sanitation programs, temperature controls and various interventions in chicken processing. This is something the industry has been proactively working to address, and the industry is committed to working with FSIS to make implementation of the performance standards for chicken parts a success for the industry, and most importantly, consumers.
What are performance standards? FSIS requires poultry establishments to meet Salmonella performance standards as a means of verifying that production systems are effective in controlling contamination by this pathogenic organism. Agency inspection personnel conduct Salmonella testing in poultry establishments to verify compliance with the Salmonella standard.
What are some actions that FSIS may take if inspectors document food safety problems at a chicken plant? FSIS procedures/rules of practice are clear. FSIS can and will take enforcement action, which can include anything from suspension of inspection to referral for criminal prosecution for serious and/or recurring violations. All FSIS in-plant inspectors are authorized to issue noncompliance records (NRs) anytime they see a violation, and plants are expected to promptly take corrective action to address the problem. If FSIS remains unsatisfied that the situation has been addressed, the agency can intensify inspection or take other regulatory action. For repeated alleged violations, FSIS conducts Food Safety Assessments and issues Notices of Intended Enforcement (NOIEs) actions, which can result in regulatory action including suspension of inspection. FSIS compliance activity continues to intensify if changes are not realized. If inspection is suspended, a plant cannot operate under federal law. If a pathogen (or any hazard) is reasonably likely to occur in the absence of additional controls, plants are required to identify and address them in their HACCP plans. Although FSIS does not have the authority to enforce performance standards that are not based on food safety/sanitation, FSIS is in the process of setting standards for several product categories and will make public those plants failing to achieve those standards. And again, as in the case of NR issuance, FSIS will intensify inspection and take other regulatory action where warranted. FSIS can take action to suspend inspection with evidence of insanitary conditions or shipment of adulterated products. Through mandatory reporting by establishments of adulterated or misbranded product, CDC monitoring of illness outbreaks, and the agency’s own routine in-plant and in-commerce surveillance, FSIS is readily able to identify and respond to potential food-safety situations.
Is it true that 80% of the chicken sold in the U.S is “chicken parts?” According to the National Chicken Council, 11 percent are marketed as whole chickens, 40 percent parts (raw breasts, wings, drumsticks, etc.), and 49 percent further processed/value added. The latter includes nuggets, strips, patties, and other fully cooked products that contain chicken. FSIS has zero tolerance for certain pathogens, including Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, in cooked and ready-to-eat products, such as chicken franks, lunch meat and fully cooked nuggets and strips.