USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on Monday announced that it will be issuing a Federal Register notice declaring Salmonella an adulterant in Not Ready to Eat (NRTE) but Appears Ready to Eat (RTE) Stuffed Chicken Products. FSIS intends to set a limit on this product class at one colony forming unit (1 CFU) of Salmonella per gram.

In response to the announcement, NCC issued the following statement, attributable to Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., NCC senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs:

“As these products often appear ready to eat, but contain raw chicken, we recognize their nature raises special considerations that merit additional attention. NCC and our member companies have invested millions of dollars and have worked for more than a decade to develop and refine best practices for these products to reduce Salmonella and protect public health. These efforts have been paying off, demonstrated by a significant decline in illness over the past seven years.

Ashley Peterson

“NCC is concerned about the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy, made without supporting data, for a product category that has only been associated with one outbreak since 2015. It has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves. We’re equally concerned that this announcement was not science-based or data-driven.

“Going back to the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, the mere presence of Salmonella has not rendered raw poultry adulterated. We believe FSIS already has the regulatory and public health tools to work with the industry to ensure the continued safety of these products. We’ve been asking the agency for years to collaborate on these efforts, including two petitions for stricter regulations, requests that have gone largely ignored.

“There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits all approach to food safety, which is why we employ a multi-stage strategy. The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising and processing chicken, and by handling and cooking it properly at home.

“NCC remains confident these products can be prepared and consumed safely, and the industry remains committed to continuing their efforts to further enhance the safety of these products.”

Background

Not ready-to-eat (NRTE) frozen, raw, breaded, stuffed chicken products would include products like Chicken Cordon Bleu and Chicken Kiev. They are typically sold raw, labeled to indicate their raw nature, and must be cooked properly following the instructions on the package.

FSIS has long interpreted the Poultry Products Inspection Act such that Salmonella is not an adulterant in raw poultry, a view reinforced by federal courts as well. Chicken processors take a number of steps to reduce and control Salmonella during processing, and final customary consumer cooking to an internal temperature of 165°F destroys any Salmonella that may remain. FSIS has never, since the Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957, taken the view that the mere presence of Salmonella on raw poultry renders the product adulterated.

Eleven outbreaks associated with these products have been investigated by public health officials since 1998. Prior to one 2021 outbreak, the last multistate outbreak of NRTE stuffed chicken products was in 2015, meaning one outbreak in the past seven years.

In the 2021 investigation, some consumers reportedly did not cook the stuffed chicken products using a validated process (oven), as described on the product label, to ensure that the product was thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. Instead, some consumers reported using a microwave or air fryer.

As a result of this outbreak, and other previous pre-2015 outbreaks associated with these products, FSIS sought advice from the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI), which advises FSIS on matters affecting Federal inspection program activities.  NCC viewed this as a welcomed step toward more direct involvement to reinforce efforts for this product class. The NACMPI subcommittee reported several recommendations to FSIS, many of which presented practical steps that could be taken immediately and which NCC supported, and none of which was to declare Salmonella an adulterant in these products.

Additionally, NCC has twice petitioned FSIS asking for mandatory and stricter labels for these products, to help consumers better understand the proper cooking procedures. Neither petition has received a response.

In addition, NCC earlier this month wrote to FSIS leadership asking the agency to draw on existing regulatory tools and policies and offered seven specific, rigorous steps that we believe would have an impact on public health. We have yet to receive a response to the letter.

Even though Salmonella was not considered an adulterant in these products, the industry has treated their safety as a top priority for more than a decade. These efforts have included obtaining source material from Category 1 establishments, testing source material, testing other product ingredients, revising labels to emphasize these products’ raw nature and proper cooking requirements, researching consumer understanding of labels, and even evaluating palatability and consumer acceptance of fully cooked versions of these products.

 

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