The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has unveiled new chicken and turkey safety regulations that is says will reduce the number of Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses each year.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also released a compliance guide to help the poultry industry address Salmonella and Campylobacter and a compliance guide on known practices for pre-harvest management to reduce E. coli O157:H7 contamination in cattle.

"There is no more important mission at USDA than ensuring the safety of our food, and we are working every day as part of the President's Food Safety Working Group to lower the danger of foodborne illness," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The new standards mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of Salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against Campylobacter."

After two years under the new standards, FSIS estimates that 39,000 illnesses will be avoided each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and 26,000 fewer illnesses each year under the revised Salmonella standards.

The standards are the first-ever for Campylobacter, and mark the first revision to the Salmonella standards for chicken since 1996 and for turkeys since the first standards were set in 2005. The performance standards set a level in percentage of samples testing positive for a given pathogen an establishment must achieve, and play a key role in reducing the prevalence of foodborne pathogens and preventing harm to consumers.

Long overdue

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says the changes will have a big impact on food safety and are long overdue.

"USDA promised it would continuously update its performance standards, but the agency never delivered on this promise, until now," DeWaal said. "Performance standards are the metric for measuring whether a company is maintaining control over the pathogens that are often present on poultry, and which cause millions of illnesses each year."

The President's Food Safety Working Group has set a goal of having 90 percent of all poultry establishments meet the revised Salmonella standard by the end of 2010.

By revising current performance standards and setting new ones, FSIS said it is encouraging establishments to make continued improvement in the occurrence and level of pathogens in the products they produce. FSIS developed the stricter performance standards using recently completed studies that measure the baseline prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chicken (broiler) and turkey carcasses nationwide.

FSIS is seeking comment on the performance standards and two compliance guides announced in the Federal Register Notice. FSIS expects to begin using the standards after analyzing the comments and, if necessary, making any adjustments.