Questions and Answers: Pathogen Reduction Initiative for Meat and Poultry

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The Pathogen Reduction Initiative (PRI) is aimed at decreasing the health risks and economic impact of food-borne pathogens in Canadian meat and poultry.

While pathogens, such as Listeria and Salmonella, are difficult to eliminate completely from food products, pathogen reduction programs in meat and poultry will complement and build on the progress Canada has already made toward improving the safety of our food system.

The main activities of this initiative are to:

  • assess current pathogen levels in Canadian meat and broiler chicken
  • establish pathogen reduction targets
  • identify and implement strategies to monitor and reduce pathogen levels

The PRI is a joint project of the federal, provincial and territorial governments in Canada.

About the initiative

What is the purpose of this initiative?

The main objective is to improve food safety. While pathogens are difficult to eliminate completely from food products, pathogen reduction programs in meat and poultry build on the progress Canada has already made toward improving the safety of our food system.

What are some of the impacts of food-borne illness in Canada?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates that each year roughly one in eight Canadians (or four million people) gets sick from contaminated food.

Economic costs, including health care and lost productivity, are estimated to be at $3.7 billion annually.

Why is this work important to pursue now?

The primary goal of this initiative is a safer food system for Canadians. Human illness related to contaminated meat and poultry is a burden on Canada's health care system. This initiative helps us identify problematic pathogen levels in these foods, then develop and implement strategies to reduce the risk of illness.

Canada is working to establish more stringent food safety measures as new knowledge and technologies emerge, and our trading partners continue to do the same. Baseline data is critical to developing and evaluating the performance of national pathogen reduction program. Doing this research now will allow Canada to:

  • maintain its position as a world leader in food safety, and
  • demonstrate that we meet or exceed the food safety standards of our key trading partners.

How were the four initial pathogens chosen for study?

These pathogens were chosen based on scientific data from reputable and peer-reviewed sources due to their significant impact on public health.

  • Raw poultry is cited as a main source for transmitting Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • Verotoxigenic E. coli O157:H7 is linked to beef, especially ground beef.
  • Listeria monocytogenes has been associated with the ready-to-eat meats.

National baseline studies

What is the purpose of the national baseline studies?

Baseline studies are required to establish scientific knowledge about the levels of pathogens in meat and poultry during production and sale.

The results of the studies will help set performance targets for reducing pathogens in the future.

Are industry associations included in this initiative?

Industry collaboration is critical to developing and implementing appropriate pathogen reduction measures and, ultimately, to the success of the initiative.

Industry associations attended the initial information session in February 2011 as an introduction to this initiative. The poultry industry associations were later consulted on the design and implementation of the MBS in broiler chicken that was launched in December 2012.

Will industry be included in discussions regarding any new mitigation measures or strategies to reduce pathogen levels?

Any potential new or enhanced mitigation measures will be discussed with industry and other key stakeholders throughout the course of the initiative. Initial discussions on current interventions in poultry and approaches for setting performance measures took place on September 2014 with industry, academia and FPT (federal/provincial/territorial) partners following the completion of the MBS in broiler chicken. Also, industry is engaged in the joint FPT Government and Industry Working Group on the Control of Salmonella and Campylobacter in Poultry. This working group provides leadership to link the implementation of the "National Strategy for the Control of Poultry-Related Human Salmonella Enteritidis Illness in Canada" recommendations and the results of the Microbiological Baseline data to identify risk management strategies and actions to control Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry food products.

Are provincial establishments included in the national baseline study?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is performing national baseline studies of federally registered establishments for this initiative.

Some provinces are carrying out studies involving provincially inspected plants. Ontario and Alberta have completed similar baseline studies in poultry prior to the national study. All studies will contribute to overall national data on pathogen levels.

First national baseline study

What was the first national baseline study?

The first national baseline study was done on Salmonella and Campylobacter in broiler chicken flocks (at the abattoir), carcasses and retail poultry meat products. For more information on the methodology, results and follow up activities, please see the complete report.

Finding pathogens in meat and poultry during the baseline studies

What does the CFIA do when it finds pathogens during a baseline study?

If pathogens are found during a baseline study, the CFIA takes action as we would for any discovery through regular CFIA monitoring programs. This includes undertaking an investigation to determine the extent of the contamination and working with other federal government partners as appropriate to lessen potential health risks.

Upon completion of national baseline studies

What is done with the results of national baseline studies?

The results of the studies are used to develop pathogen reduction programs, including setting performance targets.

They will also serve as benchmarks against which industry can measure the effectiveness of their hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs and/or intervention measures.

The results may also be used to support future risk assessment studies.

When a national baseline study is complete, does the government intend to establish national pathogen reduction targets?

Yes. This is one of the objectives of the Pathogen Reduction Initiative.

Are the results of the baseline studies shared with the public?

Yes, when the baseline studies are complete, a report is published on the CFIA website.

Are HACCP programs in establishments to be evaluated based on these results?

The results of the baseline study are not used to evaluate the performance of the HACCP programs of individual establishments. The results will be used to evaluate the overall performance of the industry in controlling pathogens since the mandatory implementation of HACCP.

National baseline study data will allow industry to measure the effectiveness of their HACCP programs (which includes intervention measures) over time by comparing the results of testing programs with the baseline data.

If at any time during the baseline study a significant problem is identified and a recall is warranted, the CFIA works to remove affected products from the marketplace.

Why not simply focus efforts on educating consumers about proper food handling and cooking?

Consumer education alone will not eliminate food-borne illness. In addition to safe food handling information provided to the public, many countries have adopted management strategies to eliminate or reduce pathogen levels, including setting performance measures and implementing interventions on-farm and during processing.

Exploring ways to reduce pathogen levels on-farm, and during processing and production, could contribute toward safer food handling at the consumer level.

What future actions will be taken to minimize the pathogen levels?

The baseline studies are the first step. Data gathered through the studies support work to develop appropriate intervention measures at all points along the food chain, from farm to processing to retail.

A joint Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Government and Industry Working Group on the Control of Salmonella and Campylobacter in Poultry will identify risk management strategies to control Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry products by linking the recommendations of the National Strategy for the Control of Poultry-Related Human Salmonella Enteritidis Illness in Canada with the results of the Microbiological Baseline Study.

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