Chicken Salmonella Outbreaks Show Food Safety Systems Failure

The Big Problem with Foster Farms Chicken
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Salmonella causes more hospitalizations and more deaths than any other foodborne illness, and it’s been on the rise. Salmonella causes a million cases of food poisoning every year in the U.S., and over the last decade or so the number of cases has increased by 44%, particularly among children and the elderly. And chicken is the number one cause of Salmonella poisoning.

Starting in Spring 2012, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented more than 600 individuals infected across 29 states with a particularly virulent strain of Salmonella (one in three were hospitalized). Investigations pointed to Foster Farms—the sixth largest chicken producer in the US—as the most likely source of the outbreak. The CDC warned people, but nothing was done. Foster Farms apparently continued to pump out contaminated meat for 17 months.

Though there’s only been a few hundred cases confirmed, for every confirmed case the CDC estimates 38 cases slip through the cracks. So Foster Farms chicken may have infected and sickened more than 15,000 people.

When USDA inspectors went to investigate, they found 25% of the chicken they sampled was contaminated with the outbreak strain of Salmonella, presumed to be because of all the fecal matter they found on the carcasses.

In their February 2014 issue, Consumer Reports published a study on the high cost of cheap chicken, finding 97% of retail chicken breast off store shelves was contaminated with bacteria that can make people sick. 38% of the salmonella they found was resistant to multiple antibiotics (considered a serious public health threat by the CDC). Consumer Reports suggested the cramped conditions on factory chicken farms may play a role, and indeed new research shows the stress of overcrowding can increase Salmonella invasion.

The Pew Commission released a special report on the Foster Farms outbreaks, concluding that the outbreaks bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of USDA’s approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in poultry products. The agency’s response “was inadequate to protect public health,” and to this day thousands of people are getting sick with this preventable foodborne illnesses. One of the Pew Commission’s recommendations is to close facilities that are failing to produce safe food and keep them closed until their products stop sending people to the hospital.

What did Foster Farms have to say for itself? They said that their chicken was “safe to eat,” that there’s “no recall in effect,” and that it is “Grade A wholesome.” In the same breath, though, they say Salmonella on chicken happens all the time. Their chicken is “Grade A wholesome,” but might kill us if we don’t handle it right. (See Foster Farms Responds to Chicken Salmonella Outbreak).

As outspoken food safety advocate Bill Marler put it, the poultry industry’s reaction to the presence of fecal contamination on chicken is that… sh*t happens.

Salmonella contamination is also a problem in the U.S. egg supply, sickening more than 100,000 people every year. See my video Total Recall.

Other pathogens in meat include Yersinia enterocolitica in pork (Yersinia in Pork), Staphylococcus (U.S. Meat Supply Flying at Half Staph), MRSA (MRSA in U.S. Retail Meat), Hepatitis E (Hepatitis E Virus in Pork), bladder-infecting E coli (Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections), Clostridium difficile (Toxic Megacolon Superbug), and Campylobacter, the most common bacterial chicken pathogen (Poultry and Paralysis).

Poultry appears to cause the most outbreaks, but is all chicken to blame equally? See my video Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken.

How was it legal for Foster Farms to continue to ship our meat known to be contaminated with a dangerous pathogen? See my videos Why is selling Salmonella tainted chicken still legal? and Chicken Salmonella Thanks to Meat Industry Lawsuit.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: zoomar / Flickr