FSIS Public Meeting on “Roadmap to Reduce Salmonella”
By Dr. Kara Morgan
The FSIS "Roadmap to Reduce Salmonella" was published on Friday September 18, and a public meeting was held on Tuesday September 22. In her opening comments, Dr. Mindy Brashears, Undersecretary for Food Safety, explained that the meeting was being held because the Healthy People Goals for Salmonella have not been met for three decades (2000, 2010, and 2020). In spite of many efforts from federal food safety agencies and private sector actors, the rate of illness from Salmonella attributed to food has been stubbornly stuck at around 15 cases per 100,000 over that time period.
CDC estimates Salmonella bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year. Food is the source for most of these illnesses. Thirty-eight percent of foodborne illnesses from Salmonella are attributed to meat and poultry products. Animal-based products, which include dairy and eggs as well as meat and poultry, generally account for about 30% of calories consumed in the United States. Therefore, the likelihood of contracting salmonellosis from eating meat and poultry products is relatively high as compared to other foods.
In the roadmap, FSIS describes their current approach to reducing illness from Salmonella in meat and poultry products, including modernization of inspections, inspection tasks, FSIS laboratories, performance standards, outreach and communication, data transparency and analytics, research and innovation, and collaboration with public health partners. Unfortunately, there was no commitment to new approaches; rather, in the “Looking ahead” section, there was a list of what future activities “might” include. This was a bit surprising since we all know that traveling the same path will most likely to lead to the same results. The roadmap also cites a recently published study by FSIS researchers as evidence of a decreasing rate of Salmonella in meat and poultry products. However, the analysis uses statistical tools that assume the data was randomly collected. This approach, in addition to other analytically questionable interpretations of the data, leaves us with weak evidence that progress is being made.
There were a few ideas from the public comments that hopefully will give the agency food for thought. Many of those who provided public comments at the meeting noted that the broad category of Salmonella is too large. With molecular techniques, we can identify serotypes of Salmonella that have been harmful in the past and use this information to distinguish them from those that have not been associated with human illness. Currently, all major mitigation efforts from FSIS – like performance standards – treat all Salmonella serotypes equally. Notably, a pending petition for declaring over 30 serotypes of Salmonella to be adulterants was not mentioned in the meeting. USDA has not yet formally responded to the petition, but since declaring Salmonella an adulterant was not mentioned as part of the roadmap, we can assume that the petition is not on a fast track for approval. It is unfortunate that the issues raised in that petition were not addressed or acknowledged at the public meeting. There is more work to be done regarding bringing the best science to bear on this question of targeting the most important Salmonella strains. In our public comments on the petition, we mentioned that there have been advances in detection of virulence factors within serotypes through whole genome sequencing. These factors are strongly connected to severity of illness and, as such, would be an important consideration in a risk-based approach. There is no mention of focusing on specific serotypes in the roadmap, much less on virulence factors in the road map.
In our comments at the Salmonella Roadmap public meeting, CFI suggested that a broad coalition of stakeholders including industry, academia, consumer groups and government are needed to effectively address this problem. This engagement, along with work to identify the most promising interventions is needed. A stakeholder driven risk prioritization would help ensure that available resources are targeted towards the right things to reduce risk. A risk-based food safety system is built on this type of process. Given that we have not moved the rate of illness from Salmonella in over 20 years, despite the implementation of many interventions, it is clear that a new approach is needed. We hope that the agency will listen and heed the many public comments that were provided and provide a more detailed strategy for reducing illnesses from Salmonella contamination in meat and poultry products.
Associate Director, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention