Salmonella Contamination Outbreaks in Poultry Plants across the U.S.

Each package of raw poultry sold in this country has this stamp on the label: “Inspected for wholesomeness by U.S. Department of Agriculture.” It also displays the establishment number of where the poultry was processed.

According to the recently released report from the Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to stopping corporate control of food and water), 106 broiler chicken plants in 27 states and Puerto Rico failed to meet the performance standard in at least one Salmonella testing period. Their analysis claims that Salmonella contamination rates have risen in the past two years.

“Salmonella is one of the pathogens of concern,” according to Steven Cohen, senior press officer for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “It was a new initiative to test for Salmonella in broiler chickens. While other categories were decreasing, there were a series of increases in poultry contamination collectively since 2002. Since the last quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the numbers have improved.”

Varying Acceptable Percentages

The bacteria Salmonella is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States, with nearly a million cases of salmonellosis attributed annually to meat and poultry consumption, according to the Food and Water Watch report. Of these, over 9,000 of the victims are hospitalized and over 250 die. The annual cost of illnesses and premature death from Salmonella is estimated to be around $1.5 billion. Food and Water Watch is increasingly concerned about the potential for pathogens, including Salmonella, to become resistant to antibiotics. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more frequently associated with illness and death than those caused by bacteria that are not antibiotic-resistant.

FSIS began enforcing a new Salmonella standard in 1998 by testing raw and ground products for the presence of the pathogen, according to the Food and Water Watch report. The purpose of the new program was to use microbial sampling to determine when plants were not controlling food safety hazards in their production processes. Testing was also supposed to serve as an objective indicator of when industry and/or government were not fulfilling their food safety responsibilities.

The acceptable level of contamination established for each product was originally based on the average level of Salmonella present for each class of product at the time that initial baseline tests were taken, so USDA’s acceptable percentage of Salmonella contamination varies greatly by product.

To determine the contamination level for a particular plant, the USDA tests a sample of the finished product each day that the plant is operating until the requisite number of samples is taken. The number of required daily samples differs by species. So, for example, the testing period for a plant that slaughters steers and heifers would be as long as is necessary to collect 82 daily samples, whereas the testing period for a broiler chicken plant would be long enough to collect 51 daily samples, according to the report.

The length of the testing period is also affected by the frequency with which a plant produces the product. Some small plants do not produce every day, and therefore the testing period would be longer at these plants to collect the same number of samples. The “contamination rate” of a plant is the percentage of the daily samples that are contaminated with Salmonella during the testing period.

Salmonella Testing in Broiler Chickens

To determine the contamination level for a particular broiler chicken plant, the report indicates that USDA collects daily samples until 51 samples have been collected. For high volume plants that are producing five to seven days each week, this testing period usually takes between two and three months.

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