Playing chicken with public health

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should act immediately to classify salmonella as an adulterant and tighten inspections to prevent sales of salmonella-laden foods

By official count, at least 362 people were sickened by the recent outbreak of salmonella caused by Foster Farms chicken, including 268 Californians. If, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, there were about 25 illnesses for every one reported, it’s likely the actual number was closer to 7,500. The infection strain was particularly virulent and resistant to antibiotics and forced the hospitalization of victims in 38 percent of the known cases.

The outbreak was traced to California Foster Farms plants in Livingston and Fresno, yet the company never recalled the infected chicken, despite pleas from consumer groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter admonishing Foster Farms for unsanitary conditions, citing a dozen instances this year when fecal matter was found on carcasses at the plants, yet never moved to require a recall or shut down the facilities.

That’s unacceptable. The salmonella outbreak represented an epic failure of corporate responsibility and a frustrating example of the USDA’s inability to police the safety of our food supply.

Testing by Consumer Reports found either salmonella or the also dangerous campylobacter or both in more than 80 percent of the chicken sold by Foster Farms and Tyson. Each year, these pathogens sicken 3.4 million Americans and kill about 500, according to the CDC.

In the face of these numbers, the poultry industry has argued that salmonella-laden chicken is perfectly safe to eat if properly cooked. That’s a rationalization that blames the victims and ignores the problem of cross-contamination, which can occur when tainted chicken touches other foods, kitchen utensils or food-preparation surfaces. In the most recent outbreak, most of the California illnesses were traced to one Costco store’s cooked chicken products, demonstrating that even professional food handlers aren’t always able to prevent cross-contamination.

Raising poultry in overcrowded, unsanitary factory farms provides a breeding ground for disease, and the widespread use of preventative antibiotics in these facilities is producing drug-resistant bacteria that are an increasing threat to human health. Even careful consumers are at risk.

As the recent salmonella outbreak demonstrated, current USDA regulations are sadly inadequate.

Unlike certain strains of E. coli, salmonella is not considered by the USDA to be an “adulterant” that would make infected foods subject to recall. In essence, the agency is accepting the industry’s stance that salmonella is unavoidable in factory-farmed poultry, but that’s simply not the case. Food-safety advocates have pointed out that in Sweden, industrially produced supermarket chicken is virtually salmonella-free.

The USDA should act immediately to classify salmonella as an adulterant and tighten inspections to prevent sales of salmonella-laden foods. Until that happens, consumers should approach factory-farmed poultry with great caution—or avoid it altogether.