In my last post, I talked about a particularly virulent strand of Salmonella traced to Foster Farms. But while even Mexico banned the importation of Foster Farms’ chicken on public health grounds, it was still sold in the United States. Why wasn’t there a recall? How could Foster Farms continue to legally sell chicken contaminated with this virulent strain of Salmonella? It all goes back to Supreme Beef v. USDA, a court case in which the meat industry sued the USDA after they had the audacity to try to shut down a slaughter plant that was repeatedly found violating Salmonella standards. The meat industry won. The Federal Appeals Court ruled that it wasn’t illegal to sell contaminated meat; what was illegal was the USDA trying to protect the public by shutting down the plant. Because normal cooking practices destroy Salmonella, the presence of Salmonella in meat does not render the meat “injurious to health.” Salmonella-infected meat is thus legal to sell to the consumer.
We can get infected no matter how well the meat is cooked though. According to researchers, even though consumers “may eliminate Salmonella on ready-to-cook chicken by proper cooking, they could still be exposed to and acquire a Salmonella infection from cross-contamination of other foods with Salmonella from raw chicken during meal preparation.” If we measure the transfer rate from naturally contaminated poultry legs purchased in supermarkets to cutting boards in the kitchen, overall, 80% of the leg skins in contact with the cutting board for ten minutes transferred Campylobacter (another dangerous bacteria found in chicken feces) infection to the cutting board. And then if we put cooked chicken back on that same cutting board, there’s about a 30% chance it too will become contaminated.
Even though people know that washing hands can decrease the risk of food poisoning, only about 2/3 say they actually do it. Even though most people know about cross contamination, 1/3 don’t even say they wash their cutting boards. Though awareness appears to be growing, even when people wash the cutting boards with hot soapy water we can still find Salmonella and Campylobacter (see Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections). The reason most people have more bacteria from feces in their kitchen than their bathroom is because people rinse their chickens in the sink, not the toilet .
Foster Farms swore they’d try to reduce the number of chickens they were producing with this virulent strain of Salmonella from 1 in 4 to just 1 in 20. Why not a zero tolerance policy in countries such as Sweden? Because then, as the head of food safety for Costco noted, “you wouldn’t have a poultry industry.”
Other countries have been able to raise chickens without Salmonella. One industry-funded scientist complained that if the entire onus to produce safe products is placed on industry, “it then gives the consumer no personal responsibility to handle their product correctly.” That’s like a car company saying we can’t make safe cars because then no one will wear a seat belt.
I’ve touched on this topic before in my videos Salmonella in Chicken and Turkey Deadly but Not Illegal, Zero Tolerance to Acceptable Risk, and Unsafe at Any Feed.
More on the issue of cross-contamination in:
- Food Poisoning Bacteria Cross Contamination
- Meat-borne Infection Risk from Shopping Carts
- Don’t Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Note when it comes to egg-borne infection the issue is not just cross-contamination, given Salmonella can survive the most common egg cooking methods. Check out my video Total Recall.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
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