Can we get to zero salmonella in poultry?

By Emma Schwartz


News Oversight
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People may think that the chicken and turkey they buy at the grocery store is bacteria-free, but the government actually allows some salmonella in the raw poultry that’s sold to the public. Consumer advocates have been calling for zero tolerance of dangerous types of salmonella in poultry in order to cut down on the number of people who get sick from the bacteria each year. Those in the chicken business, though, say doing so would be too expensive and very difficult. So can we ever get to zero?

“The bottom line is that [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] today probably could take stronger action with respect to salmonella, but they don’t seem to have the political will, even when they have hundreds and hundreds of people getting ill repeatedly from the same product,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for the Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the USDA to ban certain antibiotic resistant types of salmonella from poultry. Industry officials disagree, saying that banning it from poultry altogether — a move that would require regulators to officially label salmonella as an “adulterant” — is impossible, at least if Americans want chicken prices to stay low.

“We cannot meet a zero-tolerance standard today with salmonella,” says Mike Robach, vice president for food safety at the meat and poultry giant Cargill, which overhauled its salmonella control efforts after a major outbreak of the bacteria from ground turkey in 2011. “If you declared salmonella … an adulterant, we would have a really difficult time getting fresh meat out to the marketplace.” Salmonella bacteria are commonly found living in the guts of poultry, which often acquire the bug through their parents. Most types of salmonella don’t make the birds ill.

In humans, however, many of those same types of salmonella can result in anything from a minor gastrointestinal illness to a life-threatening infection in the bloodstream. More than 1 million people are sickened by salmonella in the United States each year, with approximately 200,000 cases from poultry specifically.

The Denmark model

In Denmark, where poultry producers are selling salmonella-free chicken — and have been for years — the landscape is far different.

The key has been a focused effort to reduce salmonella in birds starting on the farm, before they enter the processing facility. The reasoning is simple: Processing plants can do a lot to reduce salmonella with rinses and cleaning, but they can’t always eliminate it. If the birds come into the plants with much less — or zero — salmonella, those interventions will be more effective and ultimately translate into a safer product for consumers.

Cooking chicken to 165 degrees kills salmonella, but people can easily contaminate other foods with salmonella from raw poultry when preparing meals.

Companies in Denmark began to tackle salmonella on their farms more than two decades ago. Hoping to reduce the number of salmonella illnesses in the country, their early efforts focused on cleaning up the breeder flocks that supply the chickens that become meat. That’s because many of the dangerous kinds of salmonella can be passed from the parents through the eggs. Companies improved sanitation and biosecurity on farms and made more use of vaccines. But those kinds of efforts alone weren’t always enough. In many cases, ridding salmonella from contaminated breeder flocks was only possible by killing off the entire flock — a costly endeavor. So in 1996, the government created the National Salmonella Control Program, which compensated companies that had to destroy whole flocks.

The program has gotten clear results. Salmonella illness dropped, and since 2011,officials have not linked a single case of salmonella poisoning to Danish chicken. But chicken prices have also soared to an estimated $6 per pound.

Can it be done in the U.S.?

Replicating those efforts in the United States may not be so easy, industry consultants say. While they agree that salmonella levels need to be reduced more on the farm, they say most Americans would find eliminating whole flocks unpalatable and wasteful.

And, industry officials say that with the size of production in the United States so much bigger than in Denmark, doing away with salmonella in poultry here would be impossible.

“Every major turkey and broiler company is seriously concerned about food safety and is attempting to make some interventions on the live side. That’s a fact,” says Billy Hargis, director of the poultry health lab at the University of Arkansas. “The real issue is that salmonella is ubiquitous. It’s never going away but can be better.”

But efforts to address salmonella starting on the farm all rely on companies’ good will to spend extra money. That’s because in the United States, meat and poultry regulators at the USDA lack authority to tell companies what to do on their farms. Inspectors at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) only have authority over companies’ slaughterhouse practices. Changing that oversight would be a major uphill battle requiring congressional action.

That’s why advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest want FSIS to declare certain antibiotic-resistant types of salmonella as adulterants. Such a categorization would give regulators authority to shut down plants that produce poultry with these strains.

But so far, the agency has denied the group’s petition, saying there isn’t sufficient scientific evidence yet to justify the categorization. The group has filed a new petition with additional evidence and is awaiting a response from the agency. FSIS officials say they are already taking steps to reduce salmonella.

Last year, the agency told poultry companies they needed to consider salmonella a hazard and come up with plans for their processing plants to reduce the presence of the bug. But the rule does not mean companies have to eliminate salmonella entirely. Today an estimated one in four pieces of raw chicken contain salmonella. FSIS has proposed a rule to reduce that level, but it would still allow companies to have salmonella on 15 percent of their chicken parts. In the meantime, companies and government officials say they are working to reduce salmonella on poultry, in hopes that the less salmonella there is, the less risk there is to consumers.

Cooking chicken to 165 degrees kills salmonella, but people can easily contaminate other foods with salmonella from raw poultry when preparing meals. For instance, Cargill has taken steps to clean up farms, and even eliminate flocks after its 2011 ground turkey outbreak. But it hasn’t gotten rid of salmonella. So when it finds the bacteria in batches of ground turkey, the company diverts those batches to cooked products, killing the bacteria themselves before the meat gets to the consumer.

“The problem begins before the processing plant,” says William James, former FSIS chief public health veterinarian. “If managed properly, the salmonella can be reduced from the beginning of the process to the end of the process, but it will not be eliminated.”