Unhealthy diet? Food safety regulations need updating

Unhealthy diet? Food safety regulations need updating
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While our nation has been focused on COVID-19, other public health problems have not disappeared. In particular, microorganisms transmitted by food continue to cause major public health problems in the United States. The bacteria salmonella and campylobacter are of specific concern, accounting for over 70 percent of the foodborne illnesses tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network. These two bacteria annually account for approximately 3 million illnesses in America and cost over 6 billion dollars. Chicken and turkey are among the most common foodborne sources for these bacteria.

As leading food safety scientists in the United States, we have spent our careers trying to fight this problem. Salmonella and campylobacter are so damaging to public health that reducing the number of these illnesses is included in the Health and Human Services’ Healthy People goals, national health goals set every 10 years. The number of people falling sick from these bacteria has not changed in 20 years, though, meaning the Healthy People 2020 illness reduction goals were not met and almost the exact same goals were included in Healthy People 2030 goals established last year. 

A primary reason for this lack of progress is the outdated food safety regulation of poultry products by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has not substantially changed since the 1990s. The regulation is based on science that lags behind what we know today. 

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The regulation approaches all types and amounts of salmonella and campylobacter contamination the same. New evidence shows that some salmonella types, such as salmonella Heidelberg, pose a much greater danger to human health than others, such as salmonella Kentucky, which causes very few human illnesses. New technology is also available to distinguish between these types of Salmonella and estimate the amount of bacterial contamination on products. Yet, under the current regulatory system, one salmonella Kentucky organism in a 25-gram sample of chicken is treated the same as 1,000 multi-antibiotic resistant salmonella Heidelberg in the same size sample. The same holds true for finding one campylobacter or more dangerous amounts in a sample. USDA found salmonella in 31 percent of ground chicken and 8 percent of chicken parts it sampled at slaughter plants in 2019. It did not consider the salmonella strain or whether the sample contained one or 1,000 bacteria in determining if action to protect consumers should be taken.

This system of treating all contamination the same establishes disincentives for controlling the most dangerous types of salmonella. As salmonella Kentucky is the most common type of salmonella that is found on poultry carcasses, resources are spent attempting to prevent salmonella Kentucky contamination and diverted from developing programs targeting salmonella types that actually threaten public health. 

Another key problem with current regulations is that they focus solely on the presence of salmonella and campylobacter contamination in slaughter plants and on poultry end products, drawing attention away from where the bacteria may be most effectively controlled: at the farm. Some European country regulators have already successfully focused on farms, where vaccination (available for some salmonella types), hygiene, and other control practices can have an impact felt throughout the supply chain. Reducing contamination at the farm can also reduce the spread of salmonella to nearby water that could contaminate fields used to grow produce. In contrast, the end-product focus in the U.S. establishes incentives for companies to respond to salmonella and campylobacter primarily with post-slaughter controls that allow them to meet the broad regulatory standards.

The changes needed are clear. Regulation at the USDA should better encourage reducing poultry contamination with the most dangerous bacteria at all stages of the supply chain and help prevent them from even entering slaughter plants. In addition, regulations should reduce contamination with those salmonella types which pose the most danger to the public rather than target all salmonella and should include a focus on reducing the frequency of contamination with high levels of bacteria. Years of evidence indicate that the current regulations do not work as well as they should to protect public health. Trying to meet the 2030 illness reduction goals with the same regulations and policies that already failed makes no sense.  

COVID-19 made clear that there are many weaknesses in our public health system that should have been addressed before the pandemic. We know that our food safety system is antiquated; now is the time for regulatory changes. Let’s modernize our regulatory approach, using up-to-date science, to truly build an effective and efficient national food safety system.

Craig Hedberg is professor and interim division head, Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota. J. Glenn Morris is director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute and professor of medicine at the University of Florida. Martin Wiedmann is a professor of food safety and food science at Cornell University.