IIn my kitchen, I treat raw chicken like it’s riddled with bacteria that could make me and my family sick. I use separate cutting boards for meat and produce; I wash my hands and disinfect everything that comes near the bird, then cook it to 74 ° C (165 ° F). A little paranoid, but rightly so.
Chickens, turkeys, and other birds commonly harbor salmonella bacteria that are harmless to birds but not humans.
Regulations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) aim to reduce, but not eliminate, bacteria. Under current “performance standards,” for example, up to 15.4% of the chicken parts leaving a processing plant can test positive. for salmonella. Pollution exceeds those levels in about one in 10 plants, according to a report in July by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
If restaurants, food processing facilities, and home chefs like myself are scrupulously careful when handling poultry, we can avoid ingesting the bacteria. But it is easy to be wrong. Salmonella is the second leading cause of food poisoning in the US, which makes an estimated 1.35 million Americans get sick annually, causing approximately 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US public health agency.
Chicken and turkey are responsible for about a fifth of infections, more than any other food category.
Poultry companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in improving product safety, says Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council. As a result, she says, the prevalence of salmonella in chicken is at an all-time low.
Yet despite those efforts, the infection rate remains stubbornly high. A 2020 CDC report He said: “The incidence of most infections that are commonly transmitted through food has not decreased in many years.” It found that the incidence of salmonella illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths increased 5% in 2019 compared to the previous three years.
Martin Wiedmann, professor of food safety at Cornell University, said: “We are winning in a numbers game regarding the percentage of chickens positive for salmonella, but losing the game of public health.”
Tackling salmonella earlier
Current regulations for salmonella in poultry are “outdated,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for the US nonprofit Consumer Reports, who has called for stricter standards on salmonella strains. that pose the greatest risk to public health.
The current system treats all salmonellae equally, although most human diseases are caused by only a handful of more than 2,500 identified strains. The most common strain found in poultry, S Kentucky, it rarely makes people sick.
Last January, Consumer Reports joined other consumer advocacy organizations and a group of people affected by salmonella infections to petition USDA to review food safety standards.
“If we can put in place a system that puts more emphasis on monitoring and controlling the biggest risks, I think this is how a significant path to reducing salmonella illnesses is reached,” says Ronholm.
Over the years, advocacy groups have unsuccessfully petitioned USDA to enact a zero tolerance policy for certain types of salmonella in poultry. The department’s reluctance is likely due to the loss of a court case against the Texas-based meat processing company Supreme Beef in 2001. A federal court ruled that the USDA could not shut down a plant for failing to meet salmonella standards because the bacteria are naturally found in animals and can be destroyed with proper cooking.
The most recent petition focuses on what is, perhaps, a more realistic goal: not to eliminate virulent strains, but at least to put limits on them. Today, a processor could meet USDA standards by reducing S Kentucky And it still won’t prevent a single case of food poisoning, says Wiedmann.
“The public will be much better if I continue Kentucky where is it and tear down [Salmonella] typhimurian, enteritidis, Y Newport”He says, listing the three strains responsible for approximately 40% of human disease.
The petitioners’ other big goal is for USDA to hold chicken processing companies accountable for their supply chain. “The current system tests product at the end of the line, before it goes out the door,” says Sarah Sorscher, Washington’s deputy director of regulatory affairs. Public Interest Science Center. “That kind of testing really encourages chemical washes as the main way to deal with contamination in meat.”
However, chemical washes do not kill all bacteria. “If you want to kill the worst types of salmonella, you really have to start on the farm because that’s where pathogens spread between animals,” says Sorscher. That could mean vaccinating poultry and regularly testing flocks to check for a worrying strain before it spreads, he adds.
Reducing the nastiest strains of salmonella before the birds reach the slaughterhouse has been shown to work. After more than 600 people i got sick of S Heidelberg Linked to chicken Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014, the company spent $ 70 million (£ 43 million at the time) on programs to control the bacteria. Efforts included encouraging farmers to increase vaccinations and requiring chicks in breeding flocks to be free from Heidelberg.
Heidelberg, once one of the most common causes of salmonella infections, is no longer in the top 20, according to the CDC.
Caution in the meat industry
In response to the request, two large trade organizations, the North American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council, agreed to set limits for the total amount of salmonella in a product, but not to target specific strains. The USDA treats all levels of contamination the same, although undercooked chicken that contains a lot of salmonella is more likely to make you sick than a piece with just a trace.
In general, the opinion of the industry is that the science has not advanced enough to identify which strains to target. Bacteria evolve and genetic information is passed from one strain to another, so a harmless variant could become more virulent over time. It may take USDA 10 years to approve a new poultry vaccine, by which time another strain may be a greater threat.
Additionally, commercial organizations claim that FSIS does not have jurisdiction over farms and cannot legally compel processors to take responsibility for how poultry farmers raise their birds.
Finding a solution that reflects the science of public health, but is also feasible, given the realities and practicalities of poultry production, will be a long process, says Mike Taylor, a former FSIS director and currently a member of the FSIS board. promotion. group Stop foodborne illness.
However, change may be underway. Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy assistant secretary for food safety, has said that finding viable ways to reduce salmonella disease in poultry is a priority.
In the meantime, I will continue to handle raw chicken and turkey as if they were hazardous materials. “No regulation or law will make it sterile,” says Peterson. “Proper handling and cooking is the only thing that will eliminate any risk of foodborne illness.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism