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Letter From the Editor: Let the War on Poultry-Borne Pathogens Begin


When I was a kid, Julia Child gave me great comfort because she would go on television to handle big chickens under the kitchen faucet to show how to wash away the germs that come with poultry, and she did it just like my mother and aunts did. Indeed, my earliest lessons in food safety were about how those chickens and turkeys had to be washed because they contained germs.

So it was a little discomforting to hear from a well-spoken nutrition scientist at Drexel University all these years later that raw poultry is now so contaminated that, if you wash it as Julia Child taught us back in the day, you are going to just spread Campylobacter and Salmonella in little microscopic droplets all over your kitchen.

Drexel’s Dr. Jennifer Quinian says don’t risk that cross-contamination, just get the bird in the oven and cook it to temperature.

Julia Child being wrong after all these years was one of those cute little NPR stories, and it came complete with “Germ-Vision” animation, which was pretty neat.

But, the more I thought about it, the more helpless I felt about this whole issue of pathogens being rampant in our chicken. It’s like we are supposed to just accept the fact, according to independent researchers, that about two of three raw chickens we purchase at the local supermarket are contaminated with Campylobacter or Salmonella or both.

Most of it is Campylobacter, but the Salmonella strains showing up are increasingly of the antibiotic-resistant variety. Consider this little factoid. New pathogens are emerging faster than we can even reform our poultry inspection system to more fully address the existing Campylobacter and Salmonella contamination.

I suppose that germ evolution moving faster than the speed of government should come as no surprise. But it’s sad, really, that politics has been allowed to trumpet pathogens in poultry inspection for most of the past 15 years or so.

The way we inspect chickens in the United States has hardly changed in 56 years. Oh, we’ve added Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) planning and held out some standards for the poultry industry to achieve. But the shift to pathogen reduction forced on the rest of the meat industry with some great success has largely skipped over poultry.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) knows it needs to change the system. The HACCP-based Inspection Model Project, or HIMP for short, is supposed to be the change agent for the U.S poultry system, but it has not yet happened.

HIMP was attacked from the get-go by the meat inspectors union, which took it to court under the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957.

It’s gone on and on ever since. Judges ordered studies and data, USDA brought in third-party experts, and the latest was the Government Accounting Office nitpicking about the math. The union, with its enlisted (and probably paid) partisans, keeps a well-oiled machine going in order to scare the Obama administration away from moving to a new HIMP-based inspection system.

Prior to 1957, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was responsible for U.S. poultry inspection, and a big scandal erupted because FDA was rarely doing any actual inspection at all. After 50 years of USDA-inspected beef and pork, “Ike” decided to calm the nation about chickens and give poultry the same treatment. Chickens and turkeys were moved to USDA, and eyes-on inspection of every slaughtered bird got under way.

At that time, nobody was thinking about pathogens. Back then, chickens going to slaughter were not as healthy as they are now, nor were they as uniform in age and weight. Inspectors were on the lookout for tumors, abscesses and signs of sepsis.

Today’s poultry inspectors standing on platforms watching chickens go by strikes me as both incredibly boring and a complete waste of precious time. I can guarantee that not a single inspector will see a pathogen on a chicken, even if the line speed is really slowed down or the line is run in reverse.

Somebody apparently has to do it because the 1957 law mandates it, but poultry inspectors watching birds whiz by is the poultry-inspection equivalent of the old “poke and sniff” system used on beef.

USDA’s proposed new inspection system, drawn on the HIMP experience, seems to me to empower the inspectors to get into plant records, enforce the HACCP plan, test for pathogens and focus on sanitation. Why the union does not want its members to have opportunities for more money and more responsibility by actually doing something is a bit puzzling to me.

The bottom line here is pretty simple. When two-thirds of the birds going out the door with “USDA inspected” marks are contaminated with pathogens that make folks sick, the 1957 system is clearly not working.

It is not only a failure. It is a dismal failure that food-safety leaders such as Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Al Almanza fully recognize and are courageously proposing to change.

What’s been missing from this equation is the union accepting that its members, who are our poultry inspectors, are failing. Instead, they are in denial and have made this about who has political power, not about food safety or who is right.

The only thing we should be talking about is that too many raw chickens and turkeys sold at meat counters all over America with their “USDA inspected” marks are contaminated with one or more pathogens – and what we are going to do about it.

The same problem with poultry contamination exists in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The United Kingdom decided last week to do whatever it takes to bring about some reductions in pathogen levels, no matter whose feathers are ruffled.

Dr. Hagen and Al Almanza are ready to implement a new poultry-inspection system. We trust that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and whomever he has to report to at the White House won’t chicken out.

© Food Safety News
  • julie blackwood

    Vicious circle of breeding and cruelty.No wonder people get ill from eating the corpses.

  • Gene Grabowski

    Look, I’m no friend of the inspectors’ union, but this is a shoddy piece made incredible by its unfounded accusations. For example, “The union, with its enlisted (and probably paid) partisans, keeps a well-oiled machine going in order to scare the Obama Administration …” If you want to be taken seriously, take your time and write something based on facts and which is sourced correctly. By the way, with all the meat and poultry that’s consumed daily in America, the inspection system, based on sheer numbers, is wonderfully effective. No other nation feeds as many people as safely or affordably.

  • John Munsell

    This story implies that less inspection equals safer food. I agree that if meat plants were to be fully accountable for unsafe meat exiting its lines, less inspection might work. But, how does USDA unilaterally determine if meat is safe? I suggest that microbial testing of meat would prove the success or failure of a meat plant’s HACCP Plan. And, USDA must have authority to immediately review all results of sampling conducted by the meat plant. The industry disagrees.
    in 2006, when I suggested that FSIS document the source of all raw materials tested. The leader of an industry association responded “That is not FSIS responsibility”. The leader also stated “Your petition goes to the heart of HACCP”. Well, what is the heart of HACCP?
    Answer: deregulation of the meat industry. HACCP has turned into a slippery slope for FSIS, which initially promised that upon the implementation of HACCP, the agency would embrace a “Hands Off” role, and would no longer police the industry, as the industry would police itself under HACCP. Thus, FSIS painted itself into a corner, emasculating itself of the authority to utilize a “Hands On” role which is absolutely necessary in gov meat inspection. Furthermore, since the agency no longer wants to police the industry, what right does it have to take samples, review sample results, or to implement enforcement actions?
    Who’s on first?
    FSIS inspectors at poultry plants should take numerous microbial samples, and have full authority to review lab results from plant-conducted sampes in real time. FSIS must be indued with such hands-on authority. From a policing standpoint, when a poultry plant experiences too high an incidence of lab positives (don’t know exactly how to define the limits), FSIS must have authority to initiate enforcement actions, without industry leaders responding that “That is not FSIS responsibility”.
    John Munsell

  • Devendra Shah

    Here are my two cents…I agree that we don’t need to have inspectors standing 7×24 to watch out for all the carcasses because you cant see contamination with naked eyes. It all started with the aim to look for poor carcasses with deformities. This problem now appears to have come under control, but not completely eliminated. Therefore one can not just remove all the inspectors from the plant. We probably need to continue to have inspectors but we definitely need to change the scope of their physical inspection. There are certain accidents during processing may be monitored by the inspectors. For example tearing of the gut while the carcass is on the line is the most important cause of contamination of carcass and also processing lines. The question is what do you do when such accidents happen and what can be changed? Often processors are blamed for contamination, but the contamination originates from the production facilities and continues until final product is packaged. Campylobacter can be normally found in a healthy bird at as high as 1 billion Campylobacters per gram of intestinal contents on the farm. As far as Salmonella is concerned, not one but multiple strains (serotypes) of Salmonella can also be found in high numbers in the intestines of the perfectly healthy birds. There are no policies that address monitoring of Campylobacter on farm. We have policies to monitor Salmonella on farm but these are extremely biased as they look for only couple of “so called significant Salmonella strains”. This view of the most significant Salmonella strains by the administrators, producers and processors is extremely worrisome. The fact is that there are more than 20 different Salmonella strains (serotypes) commonly isolated form farms and from the carcasses. Most of these serotypes contaminate carcasses but generally speaking most agencies are bothered with only these two so called significant serotypes. Why? There needs to be strain independent view to control Salmonella and this should be extended from farm to the fork (kitchen), not just at the level of processing. It is also equally important to realize that aiming for Salmonella free poultry is unrealistic dream and therefore comprehensive approach is needed to reduce the Salmonella. I don’t know what the new inspection policy is like, but my question is why not bring in some policy changes that would put equal pressure on producers to control/reduce these bugs at the production level, monitor and channelize processing of flocks with high loads of Salmonella and Campylobacter so we know what’s coming from where. Label products if these are high risk or low risk so that consumer knows what class of flocks these carcasses originated and have some idea about the risk. In a way lets also make consumers responsible for handling these carcasses safely if they want to continue to eat chicken.

  • John Munsell

    I agree that food safety must be from farm-to-fork. Unfortunately, poultry producers currently lack the capability to remove pathogens from poultry intestines, same problem facing beef growers. Vaccines MIGHT be a partial palliative. However, restaurants and consumers’ kitchens have the capability to utilize lethality steps to kill invisible pathogens. So, we all share responsibility in the food safety continuum. But, this article focuses on USDA’s meat inspection program, so let’s focus on whether America wants government oversight at meat plants, and to what degree. If America decides that meat inspection is useful, and it does, then we must REQUIRE USDA to indeed inspect meat plants, and authorize it to intervene when ongoing problems are observed. Herein lies the problem. USDA regulators are paralyzed with fear of litigation from the largest slaughter entities if the agency were ever audacious enough to attempt MEANINGFUL enforcement actions at large (& powerful) slaughter plants with ongoing sanitation problems. USDA-style HACCP was engineered to address this paralysis, and to remove USDA from liability. USDA-style HACCP has liberated the agency to semi-retire at the largest slaughter plants, relegating itself primarily to the role of auditing paperwork, not inspecting meat. And when the paperwork reveals ongoing problems, well, since HACCP requires that plants police themselves, the plants can unilaterally implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences, while the agency continues to pore over written records, which can be easily falsified. Once a slaughter plant authors a picture-perfect HACCP Plan with all available bells & whistles, including COA’s, 3rd party auditors, scientific justification for all decisions, ad nauseum, USDA walks away and allows the slaughter plant to unilaterally resolve all problems, absent meaningful USDA oversight. In other words, “Let HACCP Work!” HACCP was originally designed for fully-cooked, ready-to-eat foods such as jerky and astronaut food which have already been subjected to validated lethality steps. Raw meat & poultry is NOT subjected to lethality steps. Therefore, raw foods do NOT qualify for deregulation as envisioned by HACCP’s authors. Nevertheless, USDA introduced HACCP as the scientific cure-all to resolve all food safety problems. Intentionally ignoring the systemic problems within raw meat, USDA foolishly proclaimed its “Zero Tolerance” protocol, which will never be accomplished in raw meat. So……..USDA must decide if it wants to inspect raw meat, and if it has the courage to utilize enforcement actions against raw meat plants with ongoing pathogen problems. I suggest we consider mid-course corrections for USDA’s HACCP-style oversight of meat products which have not been subjected to lethality steps. Both the agency and the largest packers would be fully opposed to this idea, but the conversation must start somewhere. John Munsell

    • Oginikwe

      You don’t point out, Mr. Munsell, how even though the “USDA regulators are paralyzed with fear of litigation from the largest slaughter entities,” they do not exhibit paralyzed behaviors towards the small producers thus eliminating threats “from below” in the food chain. It’s time for us to entertain the idea that we need two sets of food safety rules: one corporate and one for small businesses. The two have to operate from the same set of rules yet comparing the two is like comparing an elephant to a mouse. Each should have their place but corporate is afraid that people will flock to small local butchers who slaughter local livestock and more will then arise and this might cut into their profits. Free markets are driven by consumer demand and as long as they hold the keys to the kingdom, they aren’t sharing.

  • Katy Keiffer

    I have understood that the issues being brought up by GAO and OIG have to do with inaccurate or outdated data which was then used to sell HIMP as a magic bullet. Asking poultry processors to self inspect is a pretty scary prospect, and the USDA inspectors are running swabs under a microscope at the end of the production line, maybe once every couple of hundred birds…. with a chain speed approaching 200 BPM, how could they do more than that? Much as Hagen et al would like us to believe in HIMP, it certainly isn’t adding up now to the big breakthrough in safer food. I say back to the drawing board.. and by the way, what about worker health and safety under HIMP?

    I see a big uptick in business for Marler Clark in the offing.

  • John Munsell

    The chemical baths to which Oginikwe refers are in my opinion totally unknown to the average poultry consumer. Egads, what if we bathed beef carcasses in similar pathogen soups! Yes, the baths do kill some bugs, while spreading pathogens to all other carcasses immersed in the lethal soup. However, these soups maintain fast chain speeds, providing us cheap chicken. The best buy in the retail case is boneless, skinless chicken breasts at under $2 a lb. If poultry slaughter plants were forced to clean up their process, and produce consistently pathogen-free meat, would consumers be willing to pay $ 3 a lb for chicken breasts? No, never. Consumers are spoiled by cheap meat Bottom line: we need to train consumers on how to handle and cook raw meat, which must always be viewed as risky. Sorry FSIS, but your vaunted “Zero Tolerance” claim for raw meat is outright deceit. John Munsell

  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    This was, indeed, an interesting article, although I found the comments even more interesting. I found myself suffering a great deal of unease upon reading Ms. Katy Keiffer’s comment that “USDA inspectors are running swabs under a microscope.” Is this protocol one of the standard methods? Ms. Lisa Leier-McHugh is certainly correct when she says that sufficient amounts of heat will kill pathogens, but the heat required for sufficient killing efficacy to make a dent in the pathogen load will also make the meat tough and spoil flavor. I like the visceral image suggested by the admonition to “Napalm the prep environment with bleach water” even though any such surface sanitation requires monitoring for efficacy using technology no consumer’s kitchen is likely to be quipped with (i.e., ATP monitor or contact plate). Furthermore, bleach should not be used on wood, painted surfaces, aluminum products, metal (including stainless steel), faucets, marble, natural stone, carpeting, fabrics and paper (including wallpaper). In short, the average consumer kitchen is not designed for sanitation. Devendra Shah’s suggestion to “channelize” chicken products according to their contamination load (of Salmonella and Campylobacter) seems sound enough except that the meat industry has long been opposed to regarding food safety as a competitive feature of meat products. I agree with John Munsell that HACCP is difficult or impossible to apply to products such as raw meat, which contains no comprehensive pathogen kill step. I also agree that USDA (and FDA for that matter) fear litigation by some of the large companies they are meant to regulate. I do not see a mechanism whereby “America” can require USDA to exercise its authority over even those companies it is afraid of. If pathogen-laden meat reaches the consumer then I fail to see how that consumer can possibly be trained how to handle and cook raw meat given the already mentioned lack of resources expected in a consumer kitchen. The answer, however, to the question of “Who’s on first” is simple – the consumer who prudently exercises the power of purse. Methods already exist with which to surface Pasteurize raw meat (without heat or irradiation or bathing in a soup of toxic chemicals). These methods do not require “Star Trek” technology. What we lack is the will to use what we have.

  • Kamia Taylor

    My ex-husband worked at a poultry processing plant, and even with USDA inspection, which often stopped the lines of meat because of problems, many, many chickens with known problems were passed through. There is no financial incentive to resolve the problems so long as consumers are blythely purchasing contaminated poultry. Because of his experience, we have adopted a policy of only purchasing free-range organic poultry that is locally processed by a butcher we know has excellent cleanliness. Vote with your buying dollars is our new motto.

  • Fly On The Wall

    Let the War on Poultry-Borne Pathogens Begin!? Becareful what you wish for. The pathogens will win.
    This is not about food safety. This is about money. Inspecting meat and poultry costs money and those costs grow faster than FSIS budgets. The majority of FSIS budgets pays salaries and benefits. Every modification FSIS proposed over the last 20 years – SIS Beef, HIMP, NPIS – was about reducing the number of inspectors and reducing cost, not improving food safety.

    And the USDA Consumer and Marketing Service, not the FDA, provided voluntary poultry inspection prior to passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957 and mandatory poultry inspection after passage of the Act.

  • mister

    Like one person said, the system is setup for failure and USDA knows this. For years (until recently) USDA’s broiler chicken Salmonella performance standards (percent positive) allowed has been 20%-for ground turkey it has been 49.9% positive. You tell me if that’s acceptable for your family! The problem is the modern production and processing model. Birds raised in close quarters arrive at the slaughterhouses contaminated (covered in feces), then go through evisceration machines that routinely busts the intestines open. USDA inspectors sit on the slaughter line all day and try to stay awake when they aren’t distracted and talking to their trimmers while trying to find fecal material as the birds whiz by at 35 bpm per inspector. USDA (and GOV in general) make it very hard to fire inspectors who don’t do their job. Plant doesn’t care because they are used to relying on the thousands of birds being dumped into a gigantic cross-contamination immersion chiller which may or may not have any free available chlorine due to heavy organic load. The Union is only protecting jobs and most of the Union’s battles originate in chicken slaughter plants. Just like John said, HACCP was designed for products with a lethality step….not raw meat. HACCP is a good idea in the right application. If you’re applying it to raw meat products in a high speed production environment, you had better have realistic expectations-especially with raw chicken. The “safe handling” disclaimer that consumers probably don’t read is on the label for a reason.