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Salmonella Chicken for Dinner?

Posted in Salmonella on August 27, 2018

Foodborne illnesses have always been nerve-wracking especially when one of our favorite foods is a cause of it. A new report published by CDC has revealed that chicken was responsible for more illnesses caused by foodborne pathogens than any other food product. 12% of all the illnesses were caused by chicken. This was followed by pork and seeded vegetables that caused 10% of illnesses each due to contamination by foodborne pathogens. Salmonella chicken is not going away anytime soon it seems.

Chicken & Outbreaks

Even though chicken was behind most of the illnesses, other foods like fish and dairy were responsible for more outbreaks. CDC declared these findings after analyzing a total of 5760 outbreaks from 2009-2015. These outbreaks led to 100,000 illnesses, 5700 hospitalizations and 145 deaths. One of the multi-state outbreaks in 2013-2014 due to Salmonella in chicken led to second most hospitalizations caused by single outbreak. The number was only exceeded by 2015 Salmonella outbreak linked to cucumber that caused 204 hospitalizations.

Here is a list of top 10 foods that caused most illnesses:

Food Category Number of Illnesses Number of Outbreaks
Chicken 3144 123
Pork 2670 89
Seeded Vegetables 2572 44
Eggs 2470 36
Fruits 2420 78
Leafy and stem vegetables 1972 81
Beef 1934 106
Turkey 1675 50
Dairy 1639 136
Fish 1353 222
Poultry Problems

In recent years, the poultry industry has asked the government regulators to allow chicken producers to escalate the speed of production lines. They propose this arguing that this will help them to retain and match the competition they face with international producers. But so far, the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services has denied all such petitions.

A Heavily Regulated industry

Tom Super, spokesman of the National Chicken Council said that apart from the nuclear energy industry of the country, the US meat and poultry industry is probably one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States of America. The National Chicken Council is a trade group that represents farmers and producer of the chicken industry. Super also emphasized that this is not an exaggeration, as some might think, and to put it in any other way would either be deceitful or will present a flagrant misunderstanding of how the chicken industry operates.

He further added that the data presented by CDC is three years old which means that it did not encapsulate the improvements that were included after the nationwide new poultry inspection system that was put into action in the year 2014. According to USDA data, the percentage of chicken that were positive for salmonella decreased to 4.9% from 5.42% in the year 2017-2018. However, during the same time, the positive test for salmonella contaminated parts of chicken increased from 14.16% to 14.83%.

There are still advocates arguing for more regulation in chicken industry….

There are many consumer safety advocates that have argued and are still in discussion that US needs more – not less – regulation in the chicken industry. Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America said that we are not talking about the important food safety issues related to chicken industry. He said that we should divert our focus from schemes whose focal point is to boost profits of the industry – like the ones that eliminate the slaughterhouse line-speed limits – and put it into talking about why our country isn’t talking about contamination in poultry.

US still lags behind many countries when it comes to addressing salmonella contamination in poultry and the measures we need to take to prevent these illnesses and the havoc it wreaks on families, he added. If we compare numbers, the European Union has shown a decrease in the number of illnesses caused by salmonella in the period of 2008 and 2016, while the numbers of illnesses remain high in the US.

Loopholes in the Food Safety Laws….

One of the contributing factors to increase in salmonella illnesses could be the laws put into effect by the federal government that is used to classify salmonella. A loophole in the food safety laws means that bacteria might not be considered as an “adulterant” even if the food products tests positive, like some of the strains of E. coli. When any of the substance is classified as an ‘adulterant’, this would mean that the food, if tests positive, is declared as contaminated. This contaminated product can’t be distributed to the general public. Some of the other adulterant include things such as plastic or sawdust.

But there are researchers at the University of Minnesota argued that classifying Salmonella as an adulterant might not have the same effects. Even if we deem the food product having Salmonella as contaminated, it would have the same significant positive effects on public health. This could be because the current testing methods for Salmonella are not practical enough to support the level of inspection that we need in order to prevent the salmonella tainted food from hitting the markets.

The Other Side of the Coin

Others don’t believe the change would be feasible.

According to Eric Mittenthal, of the North American Meat Institute: “It’s important to understand that no law or regulation can somehow eliminate bacteria that occurs naturally. If declaring certain strains of salmonella to be adulterants would make them go away, we’d support the policy, but government, industry and academic experts don’t believe this approach is achievable or would be effective.”

He further noted:

“That is why the government’s approach has been to require plants to take steps to reduce salmonella on raw meat and poultry products … Plants use careful sanitation procedures and what we call interventions, like carcass sprays and washes and steam pasteurisation cabinets, to reduce all bacteria, salmonella included, to the lowest levels possible. No one wants to eliminate bacteria on meat products more than the companies who produce and sell them, but we also believe it is important to support policies that will work and don’t lead people to believe that ‘zero’ salmonella is possible on a raw product.”

The question is not, if the change can be made, but rather, will industry pay for it? Some, like Prof Glenn Morris, of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, believe the solution is there,

The debate is far from over. Only time will tell what we will start to see.