Remarks of Caroline Smith DeWaal
Director of Food Safety
at the National Press Club

Washington, D.C.
November 19, 1998

Related Links:
11-19-98 Press Release
Holiday Safe Food Tips
CSPI Documents Library
CSPI News Releases

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 aren’t 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, let’s 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 Prevention’s 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 don’t 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 the turkey.

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 won’t help much with your Thanksgiving turkey.6

Don’t 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 don’t 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 isn’t 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 Administration’s (FDA’s) 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 cooked eggs.

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 play.

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. Let’s review how this new system has performed and what it says about the current government programs for ensuring a safe food supply.

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 HACCP’s 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 doesn’t 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, let’s 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 administration’s 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 the year.

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); 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).

2     "A Fresh Look at Chicken Safety," Consumer Reports, October 1998, pp. 26-27.

3     Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "FoodNet: 1997 Surveillance Results," April, 1998, pp. 3-4.

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.

5     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.

6     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.

7     Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.

8     Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.

9     Kitchen Thermometers, p. 7.

10     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.

11     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. 65096-65202.

12     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.

13     "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 <>INTERNET.

14     "Clinton Administration’s New Food Safety System Reduces Threat of Salmonella," U.S. Department of Agriculture News Release No. 0394.98, September 28, 1998.

15     "FDA’s 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.

16     "Food Safety Enforcement Enhancement Act of 1997," 105th Cong., 1st Sess., S. 1264.

17     "Safety of Imported Food Act of 1997," 105th Cong., 1st Sess., HR 3052.

18     Institute of Medicine, National Research Council, Ensuring Safe Food From Production to Consumption, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998), p. 9.

19     Ibid.

20     "Safe Food Act of 1997," 105th Cong., 1st Sess., HR 2801; S. 1465.

21     Congressional Record, 105th Cong. 2d. Sess., July 16, 1998, pp. S8329-S8330.