USDA targets salmonella outbreaks

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The Department of Agriculture on Wednesday announced a new effort to combat salmonella outbreaks.

The department released an action plan aimed at reducing the number of illnesses caused by meat and poultry infected with the bacteria.

“Far too many Americans are sickened by Salmonella every year. The aggressive and comprehensive steps detailed in the Salmonella Action Plan will protect consumers by making meat and poultry products safer," Elisabeth Hagen, the outgoing USDA undersecretary for food safety, said in a statement. 

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The plan comes weeks after a salmonella outbreak caused 389 illnesses in 23 states across the country and forced recalls of some chicken products. That outbreak, which happened during the 16-day government shutdown, forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call furloughed scientists back to work.

An estimated 1.3 million illnesses are linked to salmonella each year, according to the USDA.

A top priority for the agency is updating its system for inspecting poultry slaughter facilities, which it said could prevent more than 4,000 illnesses each year.

The USDA is working to finalize a regulation to “modernize” the inspection process, which would cut federal inspection officers from many routine duties and allow them to focus on tasks that are more important to protecting food safety. In their place, plant employees would gain new responsibilities for inspection.

The regulation, a draft form of which was unveiled last year, would also increase line speeds to allow for as many as 175 carcasses to go by workers each minute.

Food safety organizations have opposed the rule and asked for the USDA to withdraw it. They say it could pose serious risks to the safety of workers at those slaughter facilities and could have negative ramifications for public health.

A Government Accountability Office report issued this year found that the USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated” the performance of some pilot programs on which the rule is based.

The USDA is also pushing nine other efforts to enhance salmonella sampling and testing regimes, establish new standards, and create new strategies to inspect for the bacteria.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who have long been concerned about food safety, meet with officials from the USDA’s food safety office on Wednesday and said the plan had significant flaws.

It did not address bacteria’s growing resistance to drugs, they noted, which is leading to stronger strains of salmonella.

“I appreciate that USDA is paying more attention to the issue of Salmonella,” Slaughter said in a statement. “However, the root of the problem with resistant superbacteria is the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture creating that resistance.”

The new efforts come on the heels of work the agency has done to study chicken and turkey products, and issue new performance standards. Those efforts have reduced salmonella rates in young chickens by more than 75 percent since 2006, the USDA said.

The USDA has a goal of reducing salmonella-related illnesses by 20,000 each year.

-- This story was updated with new information at 6:45 p.m.