Small-Scale Meat Processors Have Much to Lose if USDA Changes Its Salmonella Policy


FARFA recently helped organize a roundtable in Texas with USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), for small-scale meat processors and the producers who rely on them. The 3-hour discussion with USDA-FSIS officials covered topics ranging from policy changes that are under consideration to label claims, humane animal treatment provisions, and inspection challenges.

But the topic that generated the most heat was the salmonella “performance standard” for poultry processors. This USDA policy has already caused many small-scale poultry processors around the country to shut down. The staff’s comments at the roundtable pointed to more problems to come, but also revealed potential opportunities to effect change.

To provide some background: The FDA has a protocol that requires a series of tests for salmonella at poultry processors. Because salmonella is not an “adulterant” under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, these tests aren’t designed to identify meat that would make people sick from these bacteria. Instead, the tests seek to identify the presence of the bacteria, even if it is too low or of the wrong type to cause human illness. If the bacteria are detected, FSIS treats that as proof that the processing facility’s “process controls” are inadequate.

This testing regime was implemented a while ago, and over the years the agency has changed the type of test being used. At this point, the testing looks for the DNA of these bacteria. That means that a processor may get a positive test even if there isn’t a single live bacterium on the chicken – just the DNA showing that, at some point, there had been! One of the only ways to consistently avoid positive test results is to soak the chickens in a high-chlorine bath, something that most small-scale farmers oppose doing and that is inconsistent with most consumers’ desires.

What happens when the tests detect DNA from salmonella? FSIS inspectors come in and demand that the facility change its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to address the perceived flaw.

Large scale-facilities have entire departments of lawyers and consultants to deal with the agency demands. They may make some changes to their processes, but they can stonewall any attempt to make the significant changes necessary to truly improve food safety.

What happens to a small plant? They don’t have lawyers and experts on retainer, and they quickly find themselves buried in paperwork and impossible agency demands – even if the salmonella detected was at such a low level or of a type that posed no real health risk. In the end, many small processors will be driven out of business, “HACCP’d to death.”

Two small-scale poultry processors raised this issue at the listening session with FSIS, and the resulting discussion was both interesting and disturbing.

FARFA’s Executive Director pointed out that it would be a better use of both the agency’s and the processors’ resources if the tests were changed to focus on where there was an actual human health risk – i.e. test for the main strains that cause the most illnesses, and set a standard based on when there is enough salmonella present to make someone sick. Notably, the agency staff did not disagree with logic of that approach. Instead, the staff raised concerns about “perception” and the blowback the agency would receive if it was viewed as “lowering standards.”

In other words, we have a system that doesn’t work to stop the sale of tainted meat, but that is penalizing small producers who aren’t selling dangerous products. And they can’t change it because it would look bad.

Lots of people get sick from salmonella, and the agency wants to look like it’s doing something and being as strict as possible. The currenttests are not only super-sensitive, but they are quicker than tests that look for specific strains or quantify the levels of bacteria present.

And the situation is evolving. The USDA staff noted a new factor in their considerations: a petition filed by Bill Marler, the Seattle lawyer who represented hundreds of victims in the Jack in the Box food poisoning case in the 1990s. Two decades ago, Marler courted the media to get the E. coli bacteria on the agenda of policymakers, and he played a key role in getting USDA to outlaw the most virulent strains of E. coli in meat. He was a major player in the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and his ability to influence legislators and agency officials should not be under-estimated.

Marler recently submitted a petition to USDA to label 31 different strains of salmonella as “adulterants,” with a zero-tolerance approach. Previous petitions have taken a more reasonable stance, focusing on the 3 or 4 strains that truly cause the most problems. (USDA rejected the most recent one in 2018.) In contrast, Marler’s petition includes every strain of salmonella that has made anyone sick in the last two decades. And it fails to recognize that, unlike E. coli, salmonella can be in the animal’s lymph nodes, and thus can be found on the meat even if there was no fecal contamination.

The petition seeks to have these 31 strains of salmonella declared adulterants in any type of meat, so it impacts all livestock farmers and their processors.

Marler’s history indicates that many of his actions come out of a genuine desire to protect the public. But it’s worth noting that making salmonella an adulterant could help Marler quickly win settlements for his clients, since food companies could no longer argue that his clients got sick because they undercooked their meat. It would be illegal for the bacteria to be there in the first place.

And what about the local food movement? From the perspective of both public safety and the future of small-scale processors, the best outcome might be to have the agency move ahead with making the two or three most dangerous strains of salmonella an adulterant and drop the performance standards. This would mean that the agency would be testing for the presence of those specific, truly harmful strains, while not spending its resources (or imposing burdens on small-scale processors) to detect low-risk situations.

The danger comes from the fact that this is not necessarily the most likely outcome. The agency may decide to identify dozens of strains as “adulterants,” so that even more tests would have to be done. Such extensive tests would create significant, if not completely impossible, burdens for small-scale processors. Or the agency may decide to label some strains as adulterants and continue with the performance standards for all the strains.

USDA is accepting comments on the petition until March 23, 2020. You can submit comments:

All comments must include the agency name and identification number FSIS-2020-0007.

Your comments can be very short and simple, just a few sentences. We recommend that you either urge the agency to simply reject the petition entirely, or to only declare the few highest-risk strains as adulterants and to stop the performance standard testing for the other strains.

And beyond this petition, our movement needs to be involved in these discussions. The Texas roundtable was one of a series being coordinated by USDA and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). The sessions themselves are a good opportunity to meet senior USDA officials, raise concerns, and develop a direct relationship. Even more important, however, is the follow-up. FARFA will be working with small- scale processors to identify what changes need to be made to the current regulations, so that we can advocate for those moving ahead into the future.

The next roundtable will be in Maryland on Friday, March 20th, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at the Charles County Extension Office, 9501 Crain Highway, Box 1, Bel Alton, MD 20611.