Exactly one year ago today, I was invited to the
National Press Club to talk about holiday food safety. I am delighted to be invited back
again today. Clearly, there is no better time to talk turkey about food safety than right
before the holidays.
Holidays are a fun time, a family time, with a
family feast frequently being the major event. However, if our holiday chefs forget the
basics of safe food handling, your family feast could become a family disaster. While no
one invites Salmonella or Campylobacter home for the holidays, consumers
must expect these unwelcome guests every time they bring home a turkey. If precautions
arent taken, families could find themselves sharing the misery of food poisoning
instead of gathering around the fireplace or the piano. Food poisoning can have
particularly severe consequences for the youngest and the oldest members of the family.
Before we talk about the "hows" of
preparing safe feasts, lets talk about the "whys." The big name in bad
actors this year is "Campylobacter," a bacterium primarily associated
with poultry products. There is a lot of bad news about Campylobacter this year:
First, Campylobacter is present on the
vast majority of poultry products. The most complete government survey ever done of
turkeys, published by the US Department of Agriculture in August, found that 90 percent of
the turkeys tested in 1996 and 1997 were contaminated with Campylobacter. It is
present in a high proportion of chickens as well.1
While these data were collected before the new system for minimizing hazards in meat and
poultry started in the largest plants, there is little evidence that Campylobacter
contamination has been reduced. The best data available on that point are from tests
conducted by Consumers Union on 1,200 chickens and reported in the October 1998 issue of Consumer
Reports magazine. The percent of chickens contaminated with Campylobacter
actually seemed to increase between October 1997 and May/June 1998 even while the
prevalence of Salmonella was declining.2
While it is premature to draw any firm conclusions from those data, it is clear that
consumers must still take precautions.
Second, Campylobacter is the number one
cause of bacterial foodborne illness. It surprised everyone when FoodNet, the Center for
Disease Control and Preventions new surveillance system for foodborne pathogens,
identified this bacterium as the most commonly diagnosed cause of diarrheal illness.3
Third, Campylobacter can lead to temporary
paralysis, similar to polio. Campylobacter infections have been linked to a serious
neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Symptoms include numbness, pain,
progressive weakness, and ultimately paralysis.4
Campylobacter is not the only problem with
turkey. The same government survey of turkeys I mentioned earlier also examined how many
types of harmful bacteria were carried on turkeys. Over 97% of turkeys in this nationwide
survey were contaminated with at least one type of harmful bacteria, and three out of four
turkeys carried two or more types of harmful bacteria.5
Clearly, this is no time to lower the safeguards in the kitchen. While it is imperative
that the industry and the government work to ensure safer turkeys, consumers remain the
last line of defense against food poisoning. Let me give you some practical tips.
To ensure that dangerous bacteria dont
contaminate other foods, keep your turkey double-wrapped in your refrigerator or freezer.
Make certain that when you are handling the turkey, your counters are clear. Everything
that touches the raw or partially cooked turkey needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with warm,
soapy water. This includes your hands, thermometers and any other implements that touch
Proper defrosting is critical to ensure thorough
cooking. Move your twenty-pound turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator on Sunday.
Earlier for a bigger one; later for a smaller one.
Thermometers help take the guesswork out of food
safety. In addition, thermometers are getting faster and easier to read. Here are some
examples of instant-read dial thermometers or instant-read digital thermometers. These are
highly reliable and easy-to-use. Oven-safe thermometers are also convenient because they
can stay in the oven while the turkey cooks. One new type of thermometer that deserves
mention is the T-stick disposable thermometer. They are good for checking hamburgers,
though they wont help much with your Thanksgiving turkey.6
Dont forget to calibrate before you
celebrate. Before you put that thermometer in the turkey, take a minute to calibrate it in
a cup of crushed ice topped off with tap water. Put the tip in the ice water at least two
inches deep but without touching either the side or the bottom of the cup. Then, check
that it reads 32 F after 30 seconds.7
The best place to check the turkey is on the
thickest part of the thigh, not touching the bone. Checking it in several places is
safest. When the thermometer reads 180 F, your turkey is done.8
We recommend you use a thermometer even if your turkey has a pop-up timer, because the
pop-up variety may not always be accurate.
Be sure that your stuffing reaches 165 F.9 Warm, moist stuffing on the inside of a turkey is a great
place for bacteria to grow. If you dont have a thermometer, be sure to thoroughly
heat your stuffing on the stove after removing it from the turkey, or better yet, cook it
on the stove instead of in the turkey.
All those steps will pay off with a healthy and
worry-free holiday celebration. After all, a big serving of delicious, properly cooked
turkey, handled with care in the kitchen, is harmless, except maybe for your waistline.
Turkey isnt the only food that could pose a
hazard to your holidays. Eggs and unpasteurized cider are still risky, as well. However,
things are improving. The Food and Drug Administrations (FDAs) new regulation
for juices means that more cider is being pasteurized or otherwise processed to eliminate
bacteria.10 This government action could virtually eliminate food
poisoning outbreaks from unpasteurized juices.
Raw eggs frequently show up in desserts and
eggnog. Shell eggs are still not safe to use in those recipes because they may be
contaminated with Salmonella. Consumers can avoid those problems by using
pasteurized egg products, like Egg Beaters, in recipes that call for raw or partially
There is a lot that consumers and the food
industry can do to make food safer. In addition the government, has a critical role to
This year, the revolution in food safety is
called HACCP ("hassip"), the acronym for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control
Point systems. Last December, the Food and Drug Administration implemented HACCP systems
in 3,800 seafood plants.11 In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
implemented HACCP in the 300 largest meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants.12 Another 3,000 small and medium-sized meat and poultry
plants will start using the new system in January. Lets review how this new system
has performed and what it says about the current government programs for ensuring a safe
There were few surprises with respect to
implementing HACCP in large meat and poultry plants. At six months, the industry had a 93%
compliance rate.13 In the six-month progress report, government data showed
that Salmonella contamination in chicken was cut in half, from 20% to 10%. Other
meat and poultry products also showed improvement in Salmonella contamination rates
following HACCP implementation.14 Salmonella is
the only pathogen that is being used to measure HACCPs effect in meat and poultry
plants. As I discussed earlier, there is no evidence that Campylobacter
contamination has declined under HACCP.
In comparison with the large meat and poultry
plants, the seafood industry has done a dismal job in implementing the new HACCP systems.
Last January, FDA required 3,800 seafood processors, both large and small, to develop and
implement HACCP plans. Unlike USDA, FDA doesnt inspect seafood plants daily.
Furthermore, the agency chose not to require any pathogen-reduction standards or testing.
Within six months of implementing the system in the seafood industry, only 30% of the
seafood plants that FDA visited were in compliance with the new HACCP system. The FDA
found that 70% of the seafood plants had "serious" or "critical"
violations of the HACCP rule. Forty percent of those plants were not even implementing the
new requirements. For imported seafood, the record was even worse. Eighty percent of
seafood importers had "serious" or "critical" violations.15
The lessons from the differing performance of the
meat, poultry, and seafood industries are clear. We cannot rely on an industry honor
system to ensure the safety of food. For these new HACCP food-safety systems to work, they
must be combined with a strong inspection force and standards for the reduction of
microbial and other hazards.
Finally, lets review Congress record
of accomplishment in addressing food safety issues. In 1997, we had the largest-ever
recall of ground beef. In response, the Clinton administration asked Congress to give USDA
the authority to mandate recalls and to fine companies that violate food-safety laws.16 Congress did nothing.
For two years, imported raspberries contaminated
with a parasite made thousands of people sick, and tainted strawberries grown in Mexico
showed up in the school lunch program, sickening hundreds of school children. In response,
the Clinton administration asked Congress to give FDA the authority to go to foreign
countries to see how the imported food was being produced.17
Again, Congress did nothing.
In August, the National Academy of Sciences
issued a scathing report on the condition of the current programs to regulate food safety,
saying that the programs are based on laws that are "inconsistent, uneven, and at
times archaic."18 It said that those laws "inhibit use of
science-based decision-making."19 Two forward-thinking
members of Congress, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Representative Vic Fazio of
California, proposed legislation to combine the existing food-safety programs into a
single food-safety agency.20 Again, Congress failed to act.
Even the Clinton administrations request
for new food-safety funding to enhance inspection, research, and education at first met a
tepid response. The House originally approved only $18 million of the $101 million
request, and the Senate was poised to approve even less, $2.6 million. After a team of
Democratic Senators led by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa forced a floor vote, the Senate
increased the amount of new funding for food safety from $2.6 to $68 million.21 In negotiations over the final budget, the Clinton team
demanded even more for consumers, and, in a significant turn around, the final bill
provided $75 million in new food- safety funding.
Food safety is truly a kitchen-table issue for
the American public. I hope that the next Congress will complete the work that needs to be
done if Americans are to have safe food, not only on Thanksgiving Day, but every day of
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nationwide Young Turkey Microbiological Baseline Data
Collection Program, August 1996-July 1997, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, August 1998); U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nationwide Broiler Chicken
Microbiological Baseline Data Collection Program, July 1994 - June 1995, (Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, April 1996).
"A Fresh Look at Chicken Safety," Consumer Reports,
October 1998, pp. 26-27.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "FoodNet: 1997
Surveillance Results," April, 1998, pp. 3-4.
Jean C. Buzby, Tanya Roberts, and Ban Mishu Allos, Estimated Annual
Costs of Campylobacter-Associated Guillain-Barré Syndrome, (Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, July 1997), pp. iii, 1.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nationwide Young Turkey
Microbiological Baseline Data Collection Program, August 1996-July 1997, (Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, August 1998), p. 8.
Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture,
"Kitchen Thermometers," Technical Information from FSIS, (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, October 1997), p. 4, [hereafter referred to as Kitchen
Thermometers]. T-Stick disposable thermometers indicate above or below 160 F, and do
not reach the high temperature needed to test whether a turkey is done.
Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.
Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.
Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.
Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration,
"Food Labeling: Warning and Notice Statement; Labeling of Juice Products," Federal
Register, Vol. 63, No. 130 (1998), pp. 37030-37056.
Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration,
"Procedures for the Safe and Sanitary Processing and Importing of Fish and Fishery
Products; Final Rule," Federal Register, Vol. 60, No. 242 (1995), pp.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service,
"Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems;
Final Rule," Federal Register, Vol. 61, No. 144, pp. 38806-38989.
"HACCP Implementation in Small Plants -- The Role of FSIS,"
Remarks prepared for delivery by Thomas J. Billy, Administrator, Food Safety and
Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, before the Small Plant HACCP
Implementation Meeting, September 19, 1998, Raleigh, NC. Available at
"Clinton Administrations New Food Safety System Reduces
Threat of Salmonella," U.S. Department of Agriculture News Release No.
0394.98, September 28, 1998.
"FDAs Reflection on HACCP Implementation," Remarks of
FDA Representative before the 85th Annual International Association of Milk, Food and
Environmental Sanitarians Meeting, Nashville, TN, August 17, 1998.
"Food Safety Enforcement Enhancement Act of 1997," 105th
Cong., 1st Sess., S. 1264.
"Safety of Imported Food Act of 1997," 105th Cong., 1st
Sess., HR 3052.
Institute of Medicine, National Research Council, Ensuring Safe Food
From Production to Consumption, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998), p. 9.
"Safe Food Act of 1997," 105th Cong., 1st Sess., HR 2801; S.
Congressional Record, 105th Cong. 2d. Sess., July 16, 1998, pp.