USDA Launches Effort to Reduce Salmonella Illness Linked to Poultry

The initiative is a key step toward making chicken and turkey safer for the public, Consumer Reports food safety advocates say

Raw chicken breasts Photo: Sinan Kocaslan/Getty Images

Almost 300,000 people each year in the U.S. are sickened by poultry contaminated by salmonella, a leading cause of foodborne illness. But a new initiative by the Department of Agriculture aims to cut that number by 25 percent.

“Far too many consumers become ill every year from poultry contaminated by salmonella,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Today we’re taking action to help prevent salmonella contamination throughout the poultry supply chain and production system to protect public health.” 

Specifically, the agency announced that it will collaborate with industry, researchers, and consumer advocacy groups such as the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform (which includes Consumer Reports), on how best to control deadly strains of the bacteria both before and after poultry arrives at the meat-processing plants.

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The agency plans to increase the number of poultry samples tested each year and take into account the amount of salmonella in each sample, not just the presence of the bacteria. That’s important because the more salmonella in a chicken, the more likely someone is to get sick. 

What’s more, because not all strains of salmonella are equally dangerous, the agency will focus on the most virulent, potentially dangerous strains of the bacteria. 

“Time has shown that our current policies are not moving us closer to our public-health goal,” USDA Deputy Undersecretary Sandra Eskin, who is leading the initiative, said in a statement. “It’s time to rethink our approach.” 

CR’s poultry testing has previously identified dangerous levels of salmonella in poultry—specifically strains that can cause severe illness and death. As a result, CR has long championed the need for policies that would better protect consumers.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR and former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, commends the agency for this step.

“Some consumers have told us they feel like they have to handle chicken like it’s toxic waste, and that’s not how anyone wants to cook in the kitchen,” Ronholm says. “We’re hopeful that these steps laid out by the USDA will result in more consumer confidence about the safety of the poultry products people bring into their homes.”

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).