GAO Report: USDA/FSIS Should Update Some of Its Food Safety Standards

May 4, 2018By Riëtte van Laack

In 2015, Senators D. Feinstein, R. Durbin and K. Gillibrand asked GAO to investigate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) pathogen standards for meat and poultry products and identify any steps that FSIS could make to address food safety. On April 18, 2018, GAO published its report of the two year investigation, Food Safety: USDA Should Take Further Action to Reduce Pathogens in Meat and Poultry Products.

Though the U.S. food supply is considered safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne pathogens cause about 9 million illnesses each year. Two million of the illnesses are associated with Salmonella and Campylobacter.

GAO recognized that FSIS has taken a number of actions to address food safety, but concluded that it can do some things better. Among other things, FSIS has established performance standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter for some meat and poultry products. These standards are used to reduce contamination in meat and poultry before the products are sold. FSIS began setting these standards in 1996. At that time, the standards were set at industry-wide prevalence levels, not at levels that may protect human health. Since then, FSIS has changed its procedures and developed more science-based performance standards.

Over time, FSIS developed performance standards for Salmonella on beef carcasses, ground beef, pork carcasses, chicken carcasses and parts, comminuted chicken, turkey carcasses, and comminuted turkey. FSIS also developed performance standards for Campylobacter on chicken carcasses and parts, comminuted chicken, turkey carcasses, and comminuted turkey. Although some of the standards such as the standards for chicken have been updated, the standards for pork carcasses, beef carcasses and ground beef have not been updated since 1996 and there are no time frames for updating them. Moreover, for some commonly consumed products, such as turkey breasts, ground pork and pork chops, FSIS has never set standards. It was not clear to GAO how FSIS decides for which products it sets standards and when it updates standards.

The GAO made two recommendations regarding the performance standards: (1) document the process for deciding which products are considered for new standards (so as to better ensure that such decisions will be risk-based), and (2) set time frames for determining which updates or standards are needed for ground beef, beef carcasses, pork cuts, and ground pork.

Although FSIS agreed with the recommendations, its response included some comments. For example, FSIS indicated that it made a risk-based decision to not develop performance standards for turkey breast. Salmonella levels in turkey carcasses are typically low and consumption of turkey is relatively low, such that there appears minor exposure to pathogens from turkey parts.

As part of the audit, GAO also examined steps FSIS has taken to address challenges in reducing pathogen levels in meat and poultry that were identified in a 2014 GAO report. In that report, GAO found that the level of pathogens in poultry products can be affected by practices on farms where poultry are raised. Even though FSIS has no authority over such farm practices, GAO recommended that FSIS issue guidelines on the effectiveness of practices for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on farms. In response, FSIS did in fact revise its guidelines to include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices for controlling pathogens in poultry and beef cattle. The draft guidelines for controlling Salmonella in pigs, however, do not contain such information. GAO recommends that FSIS include such information in the final guidance.

Senators Feinstein, Durbin, and Gillibrand sent the GAO report with four of their own questions (about timing of new performance standards and other actions recommended actions by GAO as well as a question about use of whole genome sequencing) in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.