Pathogen testing and the safety of poultry parts

Written by: Michaela Oldfield

Primary Source: Institute for Food Laws and Regulation Blog, February 23, 2016

The USDA FSIS recently finalized new poultry pathogen performance standards.

In brief, the finalized rule is establishing standards and testing procedures for assessing the level of salmonella and Campylobacter on chicken parts (read: chicken breasts, wings, thighs, etc.) and not-ready-to-eat comminuted chicken and poultry (read: ground chicken and ground turkey).

While not a high-profile or contentious action (the proposed rule only received 15 comments), FSIS projects it will prevent 50,000 illnesses annually. As part of a broader collaboration between USDA, FDA, and CDC to address foodborne illness in the US food supply, this is but one step in reducing the 48 million people who will likely get sick this year.

One might ask: How does assessing the level of salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry products reduce illnesses? And why does this seemingly uncontroversial rule matter?

Understanding the implications of FSIS’s action requires understanding how the pathogen standards fit into the FSIS’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulatory system.

There are two important points for students of food law to understand.

First, salmonella and Campylobacter are not considered “adulterants” in meat and poultry.
If you’re more familiar with FDA law, this may come as a surprise.

As with FDA regulated foods, the definition of adulterated provides:

The term “adulterated” shall apply to any … meat …(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such article shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it injurious to health. 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1)

However, in American Health Association v. Butz, 511 F.2d 331 (U.S. App. DC, 1974), the court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the term “adulterated” does not include “substances such as salmonellae which may be inherent in the meat.” Id. at 334. In the court’s opinions, “American housewives and cooks normally are not ignorant or stupid and their methods of preparing and cooking of food do not ordinarily result in salmonellosis.” In other words, consumers  know that they should thoroughly cook meat. So since bacteria are not added substances, and they do not ordinarily render the product injurious (because presumably consumers will cook it properly), it is not an adulterant.

Now for the second, more important point. Since these bacteria are not adulterants, FSIS can only bring enforcement actions if food is being packed under conditions where it is likely to become adulterated. FSIS can not pull inspectors from the facility or stop production merely because they detect the presence of pathogens that are not considered adulterants. Supreme Beef Processors, Inc. v. USDA, 275 F.3d 432 (5th Cir. 2001).

If exceeding the performance standards doesn’t give the agency authority to stop production, it may seem like the agency is hamstrung – Supreme Beef Processors was considered a major blow to FSIS’s enforcement authorities.

Which brings us to asking and answering, “How is it that simply testing for salmonella and bacteria is expected to reduce illness?”

In their initial rulemaking on HACCP, the FSIS established pathogen standards because “HACCP-based process control must be combined with objective means of verifying that meat and poultry establishments are achieving acceptable levels of food safety performance.” Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems, 61 FR 38806, 38835 (July 25, 1996).

So the testing standards are not about detecting salmonella because it can make people sick, but are about detecting when a company’s HACCP system is not adequately effective.

If FSIS detects levels above what they are stating for their tolerances, they can warn the company that there is a problem. If FSIS wants to take an enforcement action beyond issuing a warning, the agency will need to do an investigation that would allow them to establish the company is packing or processing products under unsanitary conditions. So systematically exceeding the tolerance levels will trigger the FSIS to give closer scrutiny to the plant’s HACCP plans and implementation.

This may seem ineffective. Indeed, consumer advocacy organizations often call for Congress to grant the USDA the authority that was rejected in Supreme Beef.

However, in practice, even though the agency doesn’t really have this authority, they can (and do) still threaten to withdraw companies’ grant of inspection if they don’t do anything about the contamination. The reality has generally been that it is easier to comply with FSIS’s requests than to attempt to challenge in court the agency’s action. Even though they could litigate it, very few companies go to court to challenge FSIS’s enforcement actions. Dennis R. Johnson and Jolyda O. Swaim, The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Lack of Statutory Authority to Suspend Inspection for Failure to Comply With HACCP Regulations, 1 J. Food L. & Pol’y 337 (2005).

[1] FYI – this is a case involving the MPIA, whereas chicken and turkey fall under the PPIA. For purposes of this discussion, I am using case applying each statute interchangeably because the applicable Language is substantially the same.

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Michaela Oldfield
My name is Michaela Oldfield, and I am the Global Food Law research fellow with the Michigan State University Institute for Food Laws and Regulations and the Global Food Law Program. I have a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Michigan State in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies. My dissertation research was on the Food Safety Modernization Act, but my interests cover a range of regulatory issues from field to fork to waste. I like spending my time thinking about how to design, adopt and implement regulations that balance the diversity of interests affected by food and agriculture policy (without being captured too much by special interests) and are flexible and dynamic to the constantly changing world around us (but without being dysfunctionally unpredictable). Luckily, that is much of what I will be doing here! Being the Global Food Law Research Fellow means I get to interact with food professionals, lawyers, academics and government officials to identify, understand and help educate people on the numerous ways food law and policy is evolving and impacting globalized agri-food systems.