Will New Standards for Salmonella in Chicken Cut Down on Food Poisoning?
Most people have experienced a form of “food poisoning” at some point in their lives. When salmonella is the cause, typical symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever, which resolve themselves within a few days. But some people—especially those with weakened immune systems—develop a more severe infection that can cause long-term complications and even death.
Six years ago, a particularly dangerous strain of salmonella, which is resistant to two common drugs, infected at least 129 people in 32 states. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, and one died, as of February 2019.
After an extensive investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) traced the source to multiple brands of raw chicken products the victims had purchased in grocery stores, and identified the same strain in 76 meatpacking plants around the country.
Although its 2019 report declared its investigation into the outbreak over, the investigators included an important caveat: “Illnesses could continue because this strain appears to be widespread in the chicken industry.”
This scenario illustrates a larger, complicated truth about government oversight of salmonella in poultry: While multiple agencies test chicken and turkey for contamination, track illnesses, research the problem, and issue voluntary recalls, they do not have the power to prevent contaminated chicken from being sold to consumers in the first place. Similarly, those agencies can’t shut down plants that repeatedly violate standards, nor require salmonella prevention practices on farms.
And although the percentage of chicken products contaminated with salmonella has fallen significantly over the past two decades, consumer and patient advocates say it’s still too high. In addition to recent FSIS tests, a Consumer Reports study this year found salmonella in 23 out of 75 packages of raw ground chicken purchased at grocery stores. “Thirty-one percent is pretty high,” said James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “It should not be this bad.”
More alarming is the fact that even as overall contamination has gone down, illnesses from salmonella have not. It is still the leading cause of foodborne illness in the country, causing about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths annually. And while many other foods carry the bacteria, and thorough cooking kills it in meat and poultry, chicken is the biggest contributor to illness, accounting for 14 percent of outbreaks.
Now, the USDA under President Biden is setting out to tackle the problem in a big way. To lead the charge, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Sandra Eskin—who worked on salmonella and other foodborne illness issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts for more than a decade—as one of his food safety czars in 2021. By the end of last year, FSIS announced it was reevaluating its strategy for salmonella in poultry, and Eskin told Civil Eats her team has been meeting with stakeholders ever since. They will release a draft of their new framework in the first week of October and follow it up with a public meeting in November.
Although this momentum could mean that long-awaited change is on its way, there are plenty of barriers to meaningfully reducing illnesses, given the prevalence of salmonella in chicken, the interests involved, and the regulatory barriers in place.