Reporting from Washington — Poultry processing plants will have to reduce the number of chicken and turkey carcasses that test positive for the toxic bacteria salmonella and campylobacter under new federal rules intended to prevent tens of thousands of food-borne illnesses each year.
The standards, which the Agriculture Department unveiled Monday, are projected to result in 39,000 fewer cases of campylobacter infection and 26,000 fewer cases of salmonella poisoning, Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a telephone call with reporters.
The two pathogens are the largest reported causes of food-borne illness in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Until now, the government did not have a poultry standard for campylobacter, which is most commonly found in unpasteurized milk and undercooked chicken and turkey. It can result in fever, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and, in some cases, death.
And the existing salmonella standard will be tightened for chicken and turkey. Salmonella is responsible for an estimated 1.4 million cases of food poisoning annually, including more than 500 deaths, CDC figures show. It is most commonly associated with poultry but also can occur in produce and many other foods.
Monday's actions apply only to poultry, which falls under the USDA's jurisdiction.
Brian Mabry, a spokesman for the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service, acknowledged that the new rules will not put a huge dent in salmonella poisonings. He noted that much of the nation's food supply is outside the purview of the Agriculture Department.
"This is something we can do, so we're doing it," Mabry said.
Apart from meat and egg products, most food is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Legislation that would significantly expand FDA food safety authority awaits passage in Congress.
Vilsack touted the Agriculture Department's decision.
"The new standards announced today 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," he said.