October 5, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has put together an excellent – and alarming – story on salmonella in chicken. Jeffrey Benzing, Esther French and Judah Ari Gross outline the problem this way:

Salmonella is found in a range of food products, including meat, produce and eggs. Chicken is the single biggest source of infection among cases where a food has been identified, causing about 220,000 illnesses, 4,000 hospital stays and at least 80 deaths annually in the U.S., according to an analysis of CDC data by the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.

But gaps in government oversight – including meaningful testing and enforcement – along with inconsistent practices among farms and processing plants and varying levels of industry commitment to spend money on the problem have all led to a fractured effort, leaving the ultimate responsibility for food safety with the consumer.

Salmonella jumps from one link in the chicken chain to the next, with multiple openings for contamination along the way.

Controlling salmonella in poultry is an effort that ought to begin at the farm, where the birds are raised, but federal inspections don’t happen until the birds get to the processing plants. And at that stage, the article notes, food-safety strategies and successes vary from plant to plant:

At every step along the way, there are opportunities for salmonella contamination to spread and opportunities to prevent it. USDA requires every processing plant to have a food safety plan – a list of points in the production process where dangers can arise and how the company plans to control them. But companies set their own strategies. It’s up to them to decide how thorough the interventions are, leading to variations in the level of pathogen control at different plants.

On its website, USDA lists the names and locations of slaughter plants where salmonella has been detected in more than 10 percent of the poultry tested by the agency. Since the end of 2007, the list has included nine of Tyson Foods’ 33 broiler plants and six of Pilgrim’s 26 plants that were operating as of August (but no Perdue plant currently in operation). Together, the country’s three largest poultry producers – Tyson is No. 1, Perdue No. 3 – account for about half of the 38 billion pounds of chicken produced in the U.S. each year.

Evidently, some producers are serious about stopping salmonella at multiple points before chicken is sold. Others seem to be doing a less than adequate job.

Salmonella can also be stopped in the kitchen, when cooks should take care to ensure that meat is heated to temperatures sufficient to kill bacteria and that all surfaces touched by raw meat are cleaned thoroughly. Not everyone takes these steps, though — and even cooks who are normally vigilant might get distracted occasionally and skip a step. If less bacteria were getting past the other steps in the process, it would reduce the risk of illness following kitchen slip-ups.

Read the whole article here. And if it makes you rethink your chicken consumption, remember that replacing some of the meat in your diet with legumes and vegetables is a healthy option.

3 thoughts on “Salmonella in chicken: Multiple missed opportunities for prevention

  1. It is my understanding that there are commensal bacteria that chickens can be inoculated with that will successfully suppress salmonella.

    As I was posting this, I realized why they don’t do it, it is because they want to use antibiotics to increase growth rate, feed efficiency, size and other things, and suppressing salmonella isn’t as high a priority. Antibiotics would very likely prevent commensal bacteria from suppressing salmonella.

  2. Vaccination can also reduce the incidence of salmonella in chickens, but it doesn’t seem to be widely used in the industry.

    I think the suppression of commensal bacteria is one of the theories behind why antibiotics cause livestock to grow faster, but the mechanism is not entirely clear. The overuse of antibiotics definitely contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, though.

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