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Are Chemicals Commonly Used in Poultry Plants Masking Salmonella?

Food safety experts are scratching their heads after a Washington Post article suggested last week that certain chemicals used in poultry processing might be masking the presence of Salmonella. It’s a scandalous theory that could explain why government data show big reductions in Salmonella rates in poultry plants while human illnesses have held steady – but is it a real concern?

According to the Post’s report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is reviewing academic research that shows there “could be a problem.” The article cites a “lengthy PowerPoint presentation that cited research from a USDA scientist and several university scientists” that was presented at FSIS in June. The story says the compound under the most scrutiny is cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC), which is widely used in mouthwash and is a common finishing rinse for poultry to combat disease-causing pathogens.

The issue being raised is whether CPC, or other antimicrobials, might stick around in the samples collected for pathogen testing at a high enough concentration to kill the bacteria on the way to the lab, which would give FSIS a false negative test result when the chicken might very well be contaminated.

Asked about the concerns raised in the presentation, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service downplayed the issue, noting that it was not undertaking a formal review, but said officials are taking a look at the information that was presented. The agency said the new information “contributes to a well established dialogue on antimicrobial use in poultry processing” and that it “will take appropriate steps to adjust our policies and procedures if warranted.”

One of the scientists cited in the PowerPoint presentation, Catherine Cutter, a food safety professor at Penn State, told Food Safety News she did not know her research on CPC was being mentioned at the meeting and was a bit confused about why her study was referenced because it is 14 years old. She said she conducted the research so long ago that she no longer has her lab notebooks from the study.

On top of that, she pointed out that her study was about beef, not poultry, which is an “inherently different process.” For beef, pathogen testing is done by swabbing meat directly, but for chicken, the process requires rinsing the birds and then testing the resulting liquid for bacteria.

When the Post quoted Cutter as saying, “This is a valid concern,” she says was talking about her beef research.

“[CPC] stuck to everything. It sticks to whatever you put it on,” she said, noting that it has great cleaning capability for hides. “How [the paper] made the leap to chicken, I have no idea.”

One of the pieces of research at the heart of the controversy, it seems, was produced by Enviro Tech Chemical, one of the leading manufacturers of peracetic acid, another widely used poultry wash. The company’s research, which they posted online at the end of July also suggests that CPC should be labeled as a food additive if it lingers in product  – an argument reminiscent of the controversy over the use of ammonium hydroxide in lean finely textured beef, aka pink slime, last year.

The National Chicken Council contends processing aids are not remaining in product or interfering with the pathogen tests.

“USDA-approved processing aids by definition have no lasting effect after application,” said Ashley Peterson, NCC’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.  “As such, we are confident that testing results are indicative of effective chemistry.”

As the Post noted, the presentation in June was made by chemical companies, including Enviro Tech, who make products that compete with CPC, produced by Safe Foods in Arkansas, fueling accusations that these new concerns are really just about trying to undermine a competitor’s product.

Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH Laboratories and a leading food testing expert, agrees the controversy is likely a marketing move.

“This is a commercial issue,” Samadpour said. “They are making a circular argument. If the wash remains in the sample and is killing the bacteria, it’s also killing bacteria on the bird.”

But Jon Howarth, the technical director for Enviro Tech, who was one of the presenters at FSIS in June, argues that the problem is real and says FSIS is concerned about it.

Howarth – who co-authored the research in question and whose company has also developed a method for testing CPC concentration in samples – said he was asked to present his findings to FSIS and that he was surprised by just how much interest there was.

He said nearly 20 regulators attended and another 30 to 40 called into the meeting, which was scheduled for an hour, but lasted two hours because of the high level of interest in the matter. (Howarth also clarified that someone at FSIS leaked the PowerPoint to the Washington Post and that the company did not share the presentation with the paper.)

The reaction from FSIS officials was “very, very good,” he said. “They told me ‘this is very interesting and we’d like you to explore this in more detail’. I was very pleased with FSIS. They said ‘yes, you do raise some points of concern.’”

Asked why FSIS downplayed the presentation and their review of the issue, Howarth replied: “Of course they did. They don’t want to scare the public.”

© Food Safety News
  • J T

    It may be killing bacteria ON the bird, but it is not killing bacteria IN the bird. In the absence of this chemical, bacteria inside the bird may make its way outside the bird, where it would be able to be detected to let us know there is health risk. However, with this chemical being used, the bird could appear clean from the test even though it is actually teeming with pathogenic bacteria within. This is certainly a serious potential health threat. Meat is meat, and flesh is flesh, for the most part. If we can apply rat studies to humans, it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap of faith to apply beef studies to chickens.

    • CS

      By “in the bird” do you mean in the cavity of the carcass or in the muscle? The point the original researcher made about her 14 year old research talks about this. Poultry is tested using a whole bird rinse. The purpose is to allow the rinse to go inside the cavity of the bird and the outside and get a good sample representative of all the surfaces. her research did not look at whole bird rinses but rather beef sponge samples. If you mean in the muscle, that’s not what these rinses are supposed to address. That’s why we cook poultry thoroughly to 165F. The plant can’t do much for pathogens naturally occurring in the muscle. They can only address the stuff that is likely to cause cross contamination at your kitchen counter…the surface bacteria.

  • Consumer

    Mansour Samadpour states “They are making a circular argument. If the wash remains in the sample
    and is killing the bacteria, it’s also killing bacteria on the bird.”

    This statement is the definition of a food additive. CPC, which is currently classified as a processing aid, requires a potable water rinse to remove active CPC from the bird (21 CFR 173.375). If CPC is found on the carcass after the potable water rinse then it should be classified as a food additive. It seems that the general consensus and the scientific data supports the claims that CPC is not being thoroughly removed with the potable water rinse and does affect salmonella testing. Food safety is the quintessence of the FSIS and if there’s data showing that CPC could be affecting salmonella testing then, this warrants the FSIS to look into CPC application.

    • J T

      This is why I demand that EVERY ingredient AND processing aids, methods, procedures,etc be clearly stated on the label. We the consumers demand the right to make our own informed decision. All of their reassurances that their processing aids(toxic chemicals) are safe means NOTHING to me. We are living in the age of lies and misinformation, where our elected and appointed officials have exactly ZERO qualms about bold-face lying to the public who they only pretend they are serving.

  • Concerned

    So are my children consuming these chemicals? The brand chicken I use has commercials stating their birds are “chemical free”. I see a class action lawsuit on the way if this is not the case. False advertising?

  • flameforjustice

    Never ever trust the poultry industry and the government agencies that oversee them especially when it comes to what’s safe for the consumers to eat.

  • flameforjustice

    When you eat chicken you haven’t raised you take your health and life for granted.

  • krautdog52

    Good points with the “in the bird” perspective The whole testing methodology is suspect when one considers that merely wash-culturing the carcass (which may be clean) does not detect Coliforms capable of actively migrating into deeper tissues such as the always-rare coxofemoral muscles. As said earlier, that’s why we cook chicken well-done. It’s therfore irrelevant whether CPC washing will mask wash-cultures since there’s no comprehensive-but-efficient sampling method. CPC washing could, however, help to minimize environmental contamination in the home.

    Still – I’ll take my chances with the bugs; hold the mouthwash.

  • beccadoggie10

    Salmonella is far higher in caged birds than birds allowed to feed outside –free range. The reason, I suggest, there is so much salmonella poisoning in the USA is because of the lack of animal husbandry by factory farms. And because of the way livestock are treated, forced to be caged in tiny spaces together, and then fed inedible feed which they were not evolved to eat, is the reason the birds are sick and are sickening other animals as well.

    Poultry feces are fed to livestock. One sick bird, and the livestock industry is sickened and with caged animals, this bacteria spreads like wild fire.

    If responsible people were at the USDA and FDA rather than the biotech-pesticide industry being in charge of our food, the poultry would be healthier, less antibiotics would be used to force the animals to gain weight, and the antibiotics would be available for people needing to fight infections from a simple scrape or scratch.

    But, common sense is not used at the USDA by Vilsack, nor at the FDA by Monsanto’s Michael Taylor. The only priority they have is putting organic farmers out of business with factory farming size regulations and feeding organic livestock GMO feed, which is against the law in the National Organic Program.

  • MaconSouthernGent

    A TSP wash was one of the major things that these plants used. Not sure how much they’re using them now. The mixing room was unventilated and the TSP was a fine powder. Best to hold your breath in that room, if entering. The wash was left on the return line that people had to walk under. This would cause burns on skin, on eyes but it was “claimed” to be safe.

    TSP is a strong cleaner often used to clean concrete. Everything is done in the name of profit.