According to state-sponsored jazz, Foster Farms, California’s biggest chicken producer, has been accused of poisoning people with salmonella bacteria. After an outbreak last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to shut down three of the company’s plants.
Since then, though, the company has reduced its rates of salmonella contamination dramatically. Some food safety experts are now saying that the whole poultry industry should now follow this company’s example
Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found evidence that chicken from Foster Farms had caused a wave of Salmonella infections. More than 600 people had gotten sick.
Inspectors from the USDA arrived at Foster Farms plants, and this time, they went much further than the standard safety test. Instead of just testing whole chicken carcasses, they took samples of what most consumers actually buy: the cut-up parts, such as breasts, thighs and wings.
What they found is now shaking up the whole poultry industry. Their tests showed salmonella on about 25 percent of those cut-up chicken parts.
David Acheson, a former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, says this pattern has been discovered at other poultry companies, too. Whole carcasses are largely free of salmonella, but then the bacteria appear on nearly a quarter of the chicken parts.
It’s a mystery that the poultry industry is now trying to resolve.
“What happened?” says Acheson. “Did this bug come in from the environment? Did something contaminate it during the process – the equipment, the workers, something weird like that? Or were we missing it the first time?”
Probably, we were missing it, Acheson says.
Others, like Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who makes his living suing companies when their food makes people sick, say it’s not good enough. “The standard is, it’s still OK to have a pathogen on your product that can sicken and kill your customers. And as long as that’s the way it is, we’re always going to limp from outbreak to outbreak to outbreak,” he says.
Marler believes that the FDA should take the same stand against salmonella that it did against another dangerous microbe: disease-causing E. coli.
When the FDA declared these E. coli bacteria illegal adulturants in food, the meat industry complained, but it also found new ways to prevent them from poisoning people. “It used to be 90 percent of my law firm’s revenue, and now it’s nearly zero. It’s a success story,” says Marler.
Eliminating salmonella altogether would be difficult — it’s much more common in the environment than disease-causing E. coli.
So for now, the FDA is asking companies to reduce salmonella contamination, but it’s not requiring chicken meat to be completely salmonella-free.