A new study has slammed the federal government hard over its oversight of the poultry industry.
The Pew Charitable Trusts is roundly criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspection of poultry plants as well as its failure to push for recalls of contaminated meat in the wake of Foster Farms salmonella outbreaks in 2012 and 2013.
The chicken outbreaks, linked to four Foster Farms plants in California and Washington that sickened hundreds and sent dozens to the hospital, underscore "serious weaknesses" in the USDA's oversight, according to the group. The first outbreak lasted from June 2012 to April 2013, and the second started in March 2013. Foster Farms is the sixth-largest chicken producer in the U.S.
At least 523 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico were reported to public health authorities as having been sickened, the Trust says in their report. But that number could be as high as 15,000 people nationally due to the underdiagnosis of salmonella based on estimates by the Centers for Disease Control, it says. Alarmingly, they were sickened by a highly virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain, salmonella Heidelberg, that landed 42% in the hospital.
The group points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the federal agency responsible for inspecting meat and poultry products, issued a public health alert for the second outbreak, but not the first, and that "In neither instance did FSIS ask Foster Farms to institute a recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken to market."
"When more than 500 people get sick from a food-borne illness outbreak, that means the system we have in place wasn't working to protect public health," Sandra Eskin, director of Pew's Food Safety Campaign, told the Washington Post. "This many people should not be getting sick."
Current policies "do not adequately protect public health," the group concluded. Some of the policy weaknesses the Trust points out are the fact that the FSIS does not consider salmonella to be an "adulterant" in raw poultry (while E. coli is considered an adulterant in raw beef); chicken-slaughter plants are only inspected once a year, at most; companies receive advance notice from FSIS before samples from their facilities are tested for salmonella; and the FSIS cannot close a plant based only on results from its salmonella-verification testing.
In addition, poultry plants are not required to treat the presence of salmonella as a "hazard likely to occur," or a significant risk that needs to be controlled during processing and production. And there are no requirements for farm-level control measures that would help reduce salmonella contamination in chickens before they arrive at slaughter facilities.
Instead, the FSIS puts the onus on the consumer to control for salmonella in their own kitchens. In a conversation with Squid Ink in October, FSIS's Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education Aaron Lavallee stressed that "consumer education is critical," and "cooking to temperature is critical."
When asked if the agency expects home kitchens to be as sanitary as laboratories, Lavallee replied: "That's exactly what we expect." He also explained that E. coli is considered an "adulterant" and salmonella isn't because "We don't expect people to cook their beef thoroughly."
If 7.5% or less of a plant's whole chickens test positive for salmonella, the USDA considers that level acceptable. There is no such standard for chicken parts, such as thighs and breasts, about 25% of which typically test positive, according to Lavallee, because there is more opportunity for contamination once you start chopping up a chicken in a plant.
In response to the Pew report, the FSIS said in a statement that it "confirm[s] the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent food-borne illness," including proposals to change how meat is inspected and another to help drive down salmonella rates.
The USDA also pointed to its proposed Salmonella Action Plan, which outlines ways for plants to reduce the prevalence of the bacteria. But food safety advocates say the plan has no teeth because it does not give USDA inspectors clear authority to take aggressive action when plants fail to follow regulations.
Rather than making home kitchens meet the standards of biohazard facilities, the Pew Trust recommends that the USDA try the following: adopt new technologies, evaluate companies on a regular basis, issue performance standards for chicken parts, conduct unannounced salmonella testing, establish limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse, communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible when there is sufficient epidemiological evidence linking illnesses to a company's product, and close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food and keep them closed until adequate control measures are in place. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, give the FSIS mandatory recall authority.
"What if we asked Foster Farms to recall their chicken, and they just said, 'No'?" Lavallee asked in October, admitting that the company's three California plants were "out of control when we first did the sampling." "I mean that's never happened before, but what if it did?" As things stand now, there would be little the agency could do to keep the meat from continuing to market.
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"These studies draw a troubling conclusion: that the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat is more widespread than we thought, and our federal regulatory agencies simply refuse to hold the industry accountable," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a microbiologist who has long been outspoken on the issue.
In the meantime, eat chicken at your own risk. As food-safety attorney Bill Marler told Squid Ink back in October: "There's nothing natural about chicken shit on your meat."
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