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 campyl
As leading food safety scientists in the United States, we have spent our careers trying to fight this problem. Salmonella and
A primary reason for this lack of progress is the outdated food safety regulation of poultry products by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has not substantially changed since the 1990s.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.
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
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
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.