USDA criticized for salmonella response

Federal officials aren't doing enough to combat dangerous salmonella outbreaks, according to a new report.

The Pew Charitable Trusts found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) standards for chicken should be more stringent and more expansive.

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Recent outbreaks of the bacteria "bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness" of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the report said.

More than 380 people were sickened by a salmonella outbreak that affected 23 states in recent months. Another 134 people in two states were infected with the same strain beginning last June.

“When more than 500 people get sick from two outbreaks associated with chicken that meets federal safety standards, it is clear that those standards are not effectively protecting public health,” said Sandra Eskin, the director of Pew’s food safety project, in a statement.

Foster Farms, the California chicken company at the root of the outbreaks, was not forced to recall its chicken by the USDA.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has long raised concerns about the country’s food safety system, said that was a sign of the agency’s ineffectiveness.

“It is outrageous that a bad actor is able to stay in business after USDA uncovered facility conditions that are a threat to the public health,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

According to the USDA, about 1.3 million illnesses are linked to salmonella each year. About 90 percent of infections come from food, often poultry.

Earlier this month, the USDA released a new action plan to target the bacteria, based around controversial new rules for poultry slaughter facilities and nine other test and inspection efforts.

But the Pew report declared that that effort was too weak.

“The Food Safety and Inspection Service should go beyond what it is proposing in its recently released ‘Salmonella Action Plan’ and do more to target salmonella, which is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other bacterium or virus,” Eskin said.

The Pew report recommends that the agency establish new limits for chicken entering processing facilities, conduct unannounced tests and do a better job of communicating with the public. Additionally, its standards should be updated more regularly and facilities under inspection for providing unsafe food should be closed, it said.