Americans eat a lot of meat and poultry, and if USDA forecasts are correct, they will continue to do so in 2020.
In particular, the experts expect chicken and turkey consumption to continue to rise in the New Year. Unfortunately, these foods may make many more people sick this year than they should. That’s because Trump administration officials are apparently hiding food safety data that would otherwise cause the industry to clean up its act.
The primary way that poultry makes people sick is Salmonella bacteria. Most Salmonella infections go away after a couple of days of gastrointestinal distress.
But not all Salmonella are created equal. Some “superbug” Salmonella strains have evolved to become more virulent or resistant to antibiotics.
These superbugs send people to the hospital, and sometimes even claim lives. They also led to massive recalls last year, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of Jennie-O and Butterball brand turkey products.
USDA food safety rules generally do not distinguish between superbugs and other Salmonella strains, some of which rarely cause human illness. For decades, USDA has set standards for how often samples collected from a plant can test positive for any Salmonella.
The standards are largely voluntary, but because USDA posts the results of its testing online, poultry processors have a financial incentive to comply.
All else equal, retailers do not want to sell food that may make their customers sick. By creating a price signal for food safety, USDA testing data helps the market operate more efficiently.
But USDA only shares part of its data, which it collects at significant taxpayer expense. In recent years, USDA has begun using a powerful new technology—whole genome sequencing or WGS — to analyze the Salmonella bacteria that turn up in raw meat and poultry samples. WGS analysis helps to connect the dots linking the victims of a foodborne illness outbreak.
If the bacteria that made you sick genetically matches the bacteria that made me sick, chances are there is a common food to blame.
USDA’s genetic data has helped to solve many foodborne illness investigations, and it has also revealed that the source of pathogen contamination in several recent outbreaks linked to meat and poultry go far back in the supply chain, to poultry farms and even the breeding companies that help to stock those farms.
Unfortunately, federal regulators’ authority is limited to the slaughterhouse. USDA cannot make a poultry breeder, for example, do much to increase food safety. However, by sharing WGS data, USDA can harness the magic of the marketplace.
Doing so would require no new infrastructure. Already, USDA is generating unique WGS identifiers for thousands of Salmonella isolates that it finds in slaughterhouses.
Knowing those identifiers, anyone with an internet connection can use a publicly accessible database, maintained by the National Institutes for Health, to discover whether a sample taken from a slaughterhouse matches one that has made people sick. Yet USDA does not share its genetic data, even with the companies it collects the samples from.
Why the secrecy? In response to a recent congressional inquiry, USDA’s top food safety official, Mindy Brashears, wrote that “genetic pattern alone does not provide enough evidence to establish cause and effect or identify potential public health risk.”
The first part of this response is true. Finding a superbug at a plant does not mean that food from that facility necessarily sickened a person infected with a genetically matching superbug. After all, genetically matching superbugs have been found in dozens of turkey and chicken plants.
But does finding a superbug help to identify public health risk? Of course, it does. And poultry processors should be addressing that risk as soon as possible, doing things like increased testing, diverting raw products to cooking, and, if necessary, changing suppliers.
Those precautions are not free, and they might even result in higher prices at retail. The cost-conscious among us may be tempted to blame careless consumers. After all, shouldn’t proper cooking kill all Salmonella, even the superbugs?
The unfortunate reality, however, is that most of us make food safety mistakes. We fail to lather and scrub our hands for 20 seconds after handling raw meat, neglect to wipe up meltwater from a thawing bird, or maybe even rinse off our birds in the sink. Educating consumers is essential, but so is stopping the spread of dangerous bacteria at its source.
USDA needs to do its part. Secretary Perdue has said that he wants to “prioritize customer service” at the agency.
Still, judging by recent food safety reforms like the highly unpopular hog slaughter “modernization” rule, which eliminates line speed caps at pork processing plants, the agency is confused about who its most important “customers” are.
USDA should do right by taxpayers and consumers, and stop withholding critical food safety data. Doing so will make our meat and poultry industry more efficient and competitive, and most importantly, it will help to protect consumers from dangerous foodborne illnesses.
Thomas Gremillion is the director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America.