Following the Jack-in-the-Box foodborne illness outbreak in 1993, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared E. coli O157:H7 to an adulterant in raw ground beef.  In the years that followed, that declaration forced food companies to make significant changes in the methods by which they dressed cattle and processed the resulting products.   While E. coli remained elusive in raw beef products, causing dozens of foodborne illness outbreaks and hundreds of food product recalls in the ensuing decades, the overall safety of beef products continued to improve over time. Today, E. coli recalls involving ground beef are markedly rare – no pun intended.  

Now, 30 years after Jack-in-the-Box, with industry demonstrating significant success against E. coli, USDA is increasingly turning its attention and resources to combating Salmonella in poultry products. USDA estimates that, every year, 1.35 million consumers become sick from Salmonella infections.   USDA has also reported that, over the course of the past decade, the level of Salmonella illnesses has not decreased and, as a result, the agency has not met any of its stated goals for long-term reductions in Salmonella illnesses. The agency also recognizes that, based upon current trends, USDA will not achieve its desired target of a 25% reduction in annual Salmonella illnesses by 2030.

Salmonella is arguably more elusive in raw poultry products than E. coli is in ground beef.  While USDA’s desire to reduce Salmonella by passing new regulations (and now considering declaring Salmonella to be an adulterant in a growing list of products), the agency would likely have far more success toward meeting its goals if it invested more resources in educating the public on the safe handling of poultry.  

When I recently visited USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website, I was disappointed to see that the landing page loudly declared, “Watch out for Foodborne Illness and Disease,” and then simply invited visitors to “Learn to Recognize Foodborne Illness” by clicking on a link.  What the USDA landing page should be loudly declaring is “HOW TO AVOID FOODBORNE ILLNESS AND DISEASE.”  And then inviting visitors to “Learn about How to Appropriately Handle Poultry to Keep You and Your Family Safe.”  

In my opinion, the agency also should devote additional (and substantial) dollars to educating consumers about proper food handling practices with a campaign of commercials and internet ads. Imagine how successful a single and clever Super Bowl ad could be at educating consumers about handling poultry and avoiding illness.  Instead, it seems that consumer education is an afterthought at USDA.

We can’t help consumers who don’t know enough to help themselves. With more resources aimed at educating an increasingly uneducated public about safe food handling, perhaps USDA would begin to witness a more significant decline in foodborne illnesses.