October 14, 2022 update: The FSIS today released its draft framework for salmonella in poultry, which includes proposals to test flocks for salmonella before they enter processing plants and to implement a final product standard that would allow the agency to stop contaminated chicken from being sold to the public. The agency scheduled a virtual public meeting for November 3, 2022 to collect input on the framework.
Most people have experienced a form of “food poisoning” at some point in their lives. When salmonella is the cause, typical symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever, which resolve themselves within a few days. But some people—especially those with weakened immune systems—develop a more severe infection that can cause long-term complications and even death.
Six years ago, a particularly dangerous strain of salmonella, which is resistant to two common drugs, infected at least 129 people in 32 states. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, and one died, as of February 2019.
After an extensive investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) traced the source to multiple brands of raw chicken products the victims had purchased in grocery stores, and identified the same strain in 76 meatpacking plants around the country.
Although its 2019 report declared its investigation into the outbreak over, the investigators included an important caveat: “Illnesses could continue because this strain appears to be widespread in the chicken industry.”
This scenario illustrates a larger, complicated truth about government oversight of salmonella in poultry: While multiple agencies test chicken and turkey for contamination, track illnesses, research the problem, and issue voluntary recalls, they do not have the power to prevent contaminated chicken from being sold to consumers in the first place. Similarly, those agencies can’t shut down plants that repeatedly violate standards, nor require salmonella prevention practices on farms.
And although the percentage of chicken products contaminated with salmonella has fallen significantly over the past two decades, consumer and patient advocates say it’s still too high. In addition to recent FSIS tests, a Consumer Reports study this year found salmonella in 23 out of 75 packages of raw ground chicken purchased at grocery stores. “Thirty-one percent is pretty high,” said James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “It should not be this bad.”
More alarming is the fact that even as overall contamination has gone down, illnesses from salmonella have not. It is still the leading cause of foodborne illness in the country, causing about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths annually. And while many other foods carry the bacteria, and thorough cooking kills it in meat and poultry, chicken is the biggest contributor to illness, accounting for 14 percent of outbreaks.
Now, the USDA under President Biden is setting out to tackle the problem in a big way. To lead the charge, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Sandra Eskin—who worked on salmonella and other foodborne illness issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts for more than a decade—as one of his food safety czars in 2021. By the end of last year, FSIS announced it was reevaluating its strategy for salmonella in poultry, and Eskin told Civil Eats her team has been meeting with stakeholders ever since. They will release a draft of their new framework in the first week of October and follow it up with a public meeting in November.
Although this momentum could mean that long-awaited change is on its way, there are plenty of barriers to meaningfully reducing illnesses, given the prevalence of salmonella in chicken, the interests involved, and the regulatory barriers in place.
“The bottom line is: the current standards for salmonella are not enforceable,” Eskin says.
In fact, they haven’t been enforceable for 20 years. In 1999, the now-defunct meatpacker Supreme Beef took the USDA to court after FSIS shut one of its plants down for failing to meet salmonella standards three times in eight months. (According to a PBS report from that time, one test showed close to half of ground beef samples contained salmonella.) The meat company argued that the USDA didn’t have the authority to limit salmonella in meat, since the bacteria occurs naturally and is not a risk to consumers when the meat is thoroughly cooked. The court agreed, effectively rendering FSIS’ standards useless.
Today, FSIS still has standards for what it considers “acceptable levels” of salmonella present during processing: 9.8 percent of whole birds tested, 15.4 percent of parts, and 25 percent of ground meat. Agency inspectors test for salmonella, but if a plant is out of compliance, there’s nothing regulators can do about it. In its latest reporting through July of this year, 93 of 847 poultry plants—or 11 percent—had exceeded those limits in the past year.
Advocacy groups have long urged FSIS to scrap those standards for new ones that can be enforced; Consumer Reports, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Consumer Federation of America, and STOP Foodborne Illness submitted a joint petition to FSIS that laid out a plan to do that in January 2021.
They argued that if any salmonella that could be dangerous is found in chicken, FSIS should be able to immediately stop it from heading toward a grocery store shelf or restaurant. But because not all salmonella presents a health risk, depending on the strain and the amount present, that doesn’t mean the agency would have to implement a zero-tolerance policy. Instead, they could make targeted changes, and the agency’s first big move since they announced their plan to tackle the issue indicates they may take steps in that direction.
In August, FSIS announced that in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products—think packaged chicken cordon bleu—it was planning on declaring salmonella an adulterant. That term matters because suddenly, as Eskin explained it, “it means enforcement is available, period. The minute we do that, we can use every enforcement tool. Once it’s adulterated, it cannot be sold to consumers.”
FSIS started with those products, she said, because the way they’re prepared makes it difficult for eaters to cook them properly, raising the risk of illness. Some customers don’t even realize they’re not pre-cooked and think they just need to be warmed up. Last year, a salmonella outbreak in a group of products including Costco’s Kirkland Raw Stuffed Chicken with Broccoli and Cheese caused 36 illnesses and 12 hospitalizations.
FSIS plans to publish the rule detailing the new regulations in the federal register in October, when industry representatives, advocates, and anyone else who wants to will have a chance to comment before it’s finalized. “We are very mindful that this is a different approach than we’ve taken in the past,” Eskin said. “We want to give all stakeholders a chance to weigh in . . . to make sure that the policy we finalize is the best one.”
Another way FSIS could shape enforceable product standards that work for companies and consumers alike, advocates say, is to focus on the most dangerous types of salmonella—an approach that Eskin spoke at length about considering.
While about 2,500 different serotypes of salmonella exist, just a handful account for the majority of illnesses. Other prevalent varieties are seen as relatively harmless. “Salmonella Kentucky is one of the most commonly found serotypes on poultry in slaughter plants and sampling from carcasses and parts, and that serotype really doesn’t cause that many human illnesses,” explained James Kincheloe, an agricultural veterinarian who is now the food safety campaign manager at CSPI. “We need to be more specific.”
FSIS is not currently testing for serotypes, but Eskin said they are considering it. “The tests that we’ve used historically have [answered the question]: is it contaminated or not? The problem is that it doesn’t provide any focus on what has the biggest public health impact,” she said. She noted that one criticism of focusing on serotypes is that it can lead to a game of whack-a-mole: When one dangerous serotype is controlled, another may pop up to take its place.
Eskin said FSIS has also started using testing that allows inspectors to quantify the amount of salmonella found. That could feed into a new standard that is more specific about how much of a certain type of salmonella is allowed on any given product, since a higher volume makes it much more likely that the bacteria will get someone sick.
Everyone Civil Eats spoke with expects industry pushback to new product safety standards, but Kincheloe said poultry companies might not fight the standards in the same way they have against other kinds of regulations. Last year, Butterball, Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, and Wayne Farms all signed on to join the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform alongside CSPI and other consumer and patient advocacy groups. “This cooperation is unprecedented,” he said. “There likely will be protests from trade groups or specific segments of the poultry industry, but there are large players who are for making substantial changes to the system.”
However, in response to FSIS’ announcement that it would label salmonella an adulterant in breaded and stuffed products, the National Chicken Council put out a statement calling the plan “not science-based or data-driven” and claimed that the decision had “the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves.”
The Council is the loudest voice in the chicken industry, and while it does acknowledge salmonella as a pressing challenge, it says the industry is already spending millions of dollars annually to reduce contamination of a bacteria that occurs naturally in chicken. “There is no single most effective way to reduce salmonella. And there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits all approach to food safety, which is why we employ a multi-hurdle, multi-stage strategy,”
National Chicken Council spokesperson Tom Super told Civil Eats in an email. “The industry addresses salmonella through all stages of the process—from breeders to the feed mill to the farm to the processing plant and through transportation of the product.”
Those earlier stages of the process are critical, and it’s the other place in the supply chain where advocates see regulatory loopholes. “What’s the best way to control these types of salmonella?” Kincheloe asked. “It’s in the live birds.”
Recent research has shown common salmonella strains can start as far back as the breeding hens that lay the eggs that become the chickens we eventually eat, spreading across the industry from there. And countries that have attacked the problem closer to its root have come close to eliminating it entirely.
According to a 2019 Pew analysis, governments in Sweden, Norway, and Finland all implemented strict requirements around cleaning chicken housing, on-farm testing in animals and feed, and culling infected breeding animals. They later found salmonella in less than 1 percent of the chickens they tested. In the United Kingdom, an industry-led effort to vaccinate laying hens and the parents of chickens being raised for meat was linked to a nearly 70 percent decline in illness caused by salmonella between the mid ’90s, when vaccination began, and 2010.
Advocates like Teresa Murray, the consumer watchdog for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), say vaccine requirements could be put in place for the most dangerous serotypes, and there’s some evidence that could make a difference. After a large outbreak of a type called salmonella Heidelberg in Foster Farms chicken in 2013, multiple producers began vaccinating parent chickens in addition to requiring chicks to be free of the type. Illnesses linked to that type fell dramatically over the next five years.
Tom Super at the National Chicken Council said that the industry has invested in on-farm controls such as “sanitation, strict biosecurity measures, litter treatments, feed treatments, and more.” He also said that the majority of breeder (parent) flocks in the country are vaccinated for multiple salmonella serotypes already. However, he did not share the exact numbers, and there is no public information on which companies are vaccinating or which types they are vaccinating against. Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress, the two companies that supply nearly all the breeding stock in the country, did not respond to requests for information. Super also said that there are several barriers to companies and farmers vaccinating the broiler flocks (the chickens destined to become meat), including limited vaccine availability in the U.S.
Either way, FSIS can’t require vaccines or other on-farm practices that might help reduce contamination, because its authority starts with slaughter. Another division of the USDA, the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has authority on farms, but its focus is squarely on diseases that affect animal health, and salmonella doesn’t bother chickens.
“In many other countries, the comparable regulators have authority from the beginning of the supply chain to the end. We cannot dictate to growers . . . that they must vaccinate, or they must do something else,” Eskin said. “If we can bring down the loads of salmonella going into the plant, it will be much easier for the plant to do its interventions to further reduce it, she added”
The CSPI and Consumer Reports petition calls for the implementation of a “supply chain program” with multiple controls. Kincheloe is also working on teeing up legislation that would allow APHIS to more effectively address contaminants on farms that don’t affect animals but do have public health implications.
At Consumer Reports, Rogers is also hoping that a new system could include testing animals for dangerous serotypes before they enter a slaughter facility and rejecting flocks if they don’t meet standards. “Not only would that mean less salmonella downstream, but it would also force [chicken] corporations to figure out a way to lower the level of these strains associated with clinical disease,” he said.
Of course, in every discussion about salmonella, industry and government representatives inevitably end up talking about the importance of educating eaters on how to cook chicken thoroughly. Could more be done to reduce the risk they face every time they unwrap a boneless skinless breast and start breading? Absolutely. But Murray, the consumer watchdog, said that’s not where the conversation should end.
“When it comes to any kind of consumer issue, whether it’s buying something online or consuming food that could make you or your family sick, nobody takes care of you better than you,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that the regulators and companies shouldn’t be doing more to protect us, too.”
Over the last few years, Veselka has increased investments in mitigation strategies to protect crops…
“And he told us one specific thing,” says Clark Tenakhongva, a 65-year-old Hopi farmer and…
Inside, large, green bins were filled with surplus food from 450 supermarkets in the region.…
New Investigations. We launched a new investigative desk, which has produced some outstanding work to…
A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish,…