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Safe Food Coalition letter to USDA on Campylobacter testing and standards

The undersigned members of the Safe Food Coalition write to encourage you to take swift action to protect consumers from poultry contaminated with Campylobacter. In 2017, public health authorities documented more illness from Campylobacter than from any other foodborne pathogen. Yet recently, we learned that a change in the Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) sampling methodology, designed to better detect Salmonella in verification testing of poultry carcasses and parts, has had the unintended effect of significantly reducing the sensitivity of the agency’s Campylobacter testing. This change exacerbated the already low sensitivity of the agency’s “direct plating” Campylobacter testing, a quality that led many of our groups to recommend against adopting the procedure when FSIS proposed new Campylobacter performance standards in 2015. FSIS officials have assured us that they intend to address this problem by revising the testing methodology and developing new performance standards, and they have indicated that the agency will suspend existing testing against Campylobacter performance standards in the interim. We applaud the commitment to developing new standards, however, we question the agency’s decision to suspend testing in the interim, particularly if it means consumers would endure a prolonged period without a system in place to identify and mitigate excessive levels of Campylobacter contamination.

We therefore urge you to take immediate action to:

  • Announce a firm deadline—ideally within six months—by which FSIS will develop and implement effective, enrichment-based testing and performance standards for Campylobacter.
  • Leave in place existing testing and Campylobacter performance standards unless the new standards can be implemented within 6 months. These standards are particularly important for comminuted chicken, which has not been affected by the changes in sampling methodology and for which fully one-third of processing plants are “failing” the current standard.
  • Consider interim sampling measures—in particular taking separate samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter tests with appropriate buffered peptone water (BPW) solutions—to ensure that the current tests for poultry parts and carcasses are meaningful.
  • Immediately begin publishing plants’ Campylobacter compliance status on the FSIS website.

For the full letter, click here.