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Salmonella in Chicken & Turkey: Deadly But Not Illegal

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are Salmonella poisoned by poultry every year, yet it remains legal to sell meat proven to be contaminated.

March 22, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

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J. C. Stuart, T. van den Munckhof, G. Voets, J. Scharringa, A. Fluit, M. Leverstein-Van Hall. Comparison of ESBL contamination in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. Int. J. Food Microbiol. 2012 154(3):212 - 214

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Images thanks to Chris Brown via Wikimedia Commons



When researchers last year at the Emerging Pathogens Institute ranked foodborne pathogens to figure out which was the worst, #1 on their list was Salmonella, ranked the food poisoning bacteria with the greatest public health burden on our country, the leading cause of food poisoning hospitalization, and the #1 cause of food-related death. Where do you get it from? Well I've talked about the threat of eggs. According to the FDA, 142,000 Americans are sickened every year by eggs contaminated with Salmonella. That's an egg-borne epidemic every year. But salmonella in eggs was only ranked the #10 worst pathogen-food combination. Salmonella in poultry ranks even worse, the #4 worst infected food in the United States in terms of both cost and quality-adjusted years of life lost.  In terms of the Burden of Human salmonella poisoning attributable to various U.S. Foods, eating chicken may be 8 times riskier than eating eggs. Due to strengthening of food safety regulations under the Clinton administration the number of Americans food poisoned by chicken every year dropped from about 390,000 to 200,000, and rightly hailed as a significant accomplishment. So now eating chicken only sickens 200,000 people in the U.S. every year. But isn't that a bit like some toy company boasting that they've reduced the amount of lead in their toys and are now killing 40% fewer babies. Not exactly something to boast about.  And the numbers have since rebounded upwards. Since the late 90's human salmonella cases have increased by 44%. The rebound in incidence of salmonella infection is likely a result of several factors, but one important risk factor singled out is eating chicken, as the proportion of chicken carrying infection has increased.  When people think manure in meat they typically think ground beef, but when you look at E. coli levels, which "is considered an indicator of fecal contamination," sure, there's fecal matter in about two thirds of American beef, but that number is greater than 80% of fecal contamination in poultry—chicken and turkey. Why have we seen a decrease in the jack-in-the-box E. coli o157, but not chicken-borne Salmonella? In the last decade or so the infection of beef and subsequently children has dropped like 30%. Not only has Salmonella not declined in the past 15 years, but it's actually increased lately. One reason for the difference is that the o157:h7 was declared an adulterant, any poisonous or deleterious substance that may render meat injurious to health. So selling E. coli laden beef is illegal. Why is beef laced with E. coli contaminated fecal matter considered adulterated, but chicken laced with salmonella contaminated fecal matter a-ok? It certainly kills more people than the banned E.coli. It all goes back to a famous case in 1974, when the American Public Health Association sued the USDA saying, 'wait a second—you can't put a stamp of approval on meat contaminated with Salmonella.' What could the USDA possibly say in meat's defense? They pointed out that there have been salmonella outbreaks linked to dairy and eggs, for example, too, so since "there are numerous sources of contamination which might contribute to the overall problem" it would be "unjustified to single out the meat industry and ask that the Department require it to identify its raw products as being hazardous to health." That's like the tuna industry arguing there's no need to label cans of tuna with mercury levels because you can also get exposed eating a thermometer. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the meat industry position, arguing you can allow potentially deadly salmonella in meat because, and I quote, "American housewives are…normally are not ignorant or stupid and their methods of preparing and cooking of food do not ordinarily result in salmonellosis." What? That's like saying oh, minivans don't need airbags or seat-belts and kids don't need car seats because soccer moms don't ordinarily crash into things.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Jonathan Hodgson.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I've talked about this travesty before in my blog post Why is it Legal to Sell Unsafe Meat? My video Unsafe at Any Feed explores the meat industry's blame-the-victim attitude. Food Poisoning Bacteria Cross-Contamination explains raw meat can be dangerous no matter how long you cook it and Fecal Bacteria Survey features an industry trade journal explaining the difference between the attitude in Europe and the United States.

Don't worry, though, the meat industry is on it! See my videos Viral Meat Spray and Maggot Meat Spray (if you dare! :)

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the USDA to bar the sale of Salmonella-contaminated meat, but so far to no avail.

For more context, read the associated blog post:  Why Is Selling Salmonella-Tainted Chicken Legal?

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Thea

    I love your analogies. It really helps to put the information into perspective.

  • Bruno Lacombe

    Fascinating! Thank you.

  • Janice N

    The problem of bacterial contamination can largely be solved simply by not eating meat, poultry, eggs or other animal products. In other words, go vegan!

    • Charlotte

      While eliminating meat does lead to a general reduction in probability of infection from bacterial sources, there’s no way I would call it ‘solved!’ You can still get all manner of illnesses from vegetables, E. coli being the most prominent in the states. Bacterial contamination is still possible in a vegan diet, don’t use it as an excuse to skip food safety preparation steps! :)

      • AllVegan

        While what you say is true there have been bacterial outbreaks in vegetables. The outbreak on spinach in California a few years ago being the most famous. It is the result of disreputable farmers putting raw manure on their fields, not with any problem with the vegetables as vegetables do not have rectums. Beyond that I agree with you that everyone, Vegan or not should practice proper food safety. However I must say that it is much easier to practice safe food preparation if you are not flopping hunks of dead animal carcass covered with fecal contamination on your kitchen counter every day.

  • yoshi10usa

    I am so impressed with your work and research. Please continue and save our humanity. Very very appreciated.
    ~ Yoshi

  • Dianne La. Rivière.

    The only way to be healthy and happy at any age is to go Vegan.
    Thank you Dr Gregar.
    I heard your talk two years ag.
    I became 100 percent Vegan the very next day.
    I live in Cyprus where the BBQ is everybody’s way of life.
    Thank you again for all the information.

  • BlessedMama

    What? The government not looking out for the people? Say it isn’t so!

  • Leah

    Wow. Wow.. Wow!! Your passion for exposing the truth is evident in your wry sense of humor which makes this bunch of baloney from the meat industry tolerable to stomach. Pardon the pun!

  • Plantstrongdoc

    Another nail in the coffin for meat. Do you wanna die quickly – eat meat. Do you wanna die slowly – eat meat. Do you wanna kill the planet – eat meat. Ironically people shift from beef to poultry to be more healthy. PCRM suggested to label poultry with a warning label: “May contain feces”. Vegan rules.

  • Kenny Nero, Jr.

    Welps, next time someone says chicken is the shit, I’ll nod my head in agreement.

  • Ashley Stewart

    I just want to point out that the problem is in the conventionally raised factory farmed chickens. If you buy pastured, small scale farmed chickens, not only are they nutritionally healthier, they don’t run the same risks.Same goes for organic grass fed beef.

    • b00mer

      This reply is made again and again in response to any negative claim regarding meat consumption. Could you please share your sources for this claim? As I have never seen any research comparing the two.

      If you have no sources, you should preface your statements with some indication that this is only your personal opinion, as people who frequent this site do so because they are interested in what peer-reviewed research has to say, not personal opinions.

    • footestomper

      December 2013 – Consumer Reports Release:

      “Every one of the four major brands we tested . . . contained worrisome amounts of bacteria, even the chicken breasts labeled “no antibiotics” or “organic.” ”
      I think I’ll stick with the plan to avoid chicken altogether!

  • Izzan

    What a fucking annoying voice – I will go and eat all chicken around me now.

    • Thea

      I flagged this comment as inappropriate and hope that it will be removed. This site is for civil discourse only.

  • bellybuttonblue

    Hi Dr. Greger, greetings from The Netherlands. There’s a lot of media attention about ESBL here right now. ESBL (Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamase) was found in almost all chickenmeat in the supermarket and in about 40% of the beef. This bacteria makes you resistent to antibiotics. The dutch authorities say it’s okay to eat the meat, as long as you make sure it’s cooked thoroughly. I’d like to know what you have to say about this.

  • Ellie D

    “What a concept” has become my favorite phrase!

  • Thomas Feiller

    I’m a vegan. But I have to be objective here. Salmonella-produce ranked 8th. Yes. Washing helps. Never the less……..
    if we go on the attack we have to be honest about the fact that all of the food chain is contaminated. We all need to look into doing our own farming as much as possible. Comments?