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Lab Testing: Hunting for Pathogens on Poultry

The mishandling or undercooking of raw chicken meat associated with the recent Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak has sickened nearly 340 people across 20 states and Puerto Rico since March and has caused concern among consumers, consumer groups, and food-safety advocates about the safety of our food system and the efficacy of testing systems designed to keep our nation’s food supply safe.

After identifying three California processing facilities as the likely source of the Salmonella outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a public health alert and allowed the plants to remain open. USDA did not mandate a recall nor did Foster Farms issue a voluntary recall, but the company agreed to implement practices to improve food safety at its three Central California processing plants.

Currently, federal law under USDA allows for 7.5 percent of whole chicken carcasses to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. This means that products contaminated with Salmonella and Campylobacter have become common and are frequently shipped from production facilities to stores. It is up to the consumer to follow safe handling and cooking practices to avoid being sickened.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines require microbiological sampling to monitor raw poultry for harmful pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, but the regulations are not necessarily enforceable because no strains of Salmonella and Campylobacter are classified as adulterants.

This means that most pathogen-testing standards within the poultry industry are written at the company level. Oftentimes, the testing is done so that the processors are able to ensure that their own control systems are working, said Dave Theno, CEO at Gray Dog Partners, who added that the companies that test most aggressively are the ones that achieve the highest levels of microbial control.

“You use microbiological sampling to gauge the health of your business or the health of your systems,” Theno said. “It’s necessary because you are managing something you can’t see with the naked eye. So you manage the bits and pieces that you can see, but the only way to really find out if the magic is working is to take the products and sample them.”

Brad Goskowicz, CEO of Microbiologics, added that a particular challenge for meat producers lies in finding methods for pathogen testing that are fast and have high accuracy, and all for a relatively low cost.

Typically, to test a poultry product for pathogenic bacteria, a sample will be collected at a processing facility and sent to a lab where the sample can be tested and analyzed. A whole bird rinse is the uniformly accepted method for collecting a sample, according to FSIS, and involves placing a whole-bodied bird in a plastic bag with a set amount of dilutant. The next step involves shaking the bag before removing a portion of the rinse fluid that can be tested according to each company’s previously determined baseline levels. The specific guidelines can be found in section 4.5.6 of the USDA Laboratory Notebook.

Additionally, some processors will sample specific products such as chicken legs, breasts, and thighs for microbiological testing. When a sample is tested for a pathogen such as Salmonella, the testing is done on a general basis and not for specific subspecies such as Salmonella Heidelberg.

No mandates regulate the percentage of birds that must be tested from each production facility. Instead, companies develop their own best practices. A large processing center may typically sample one bird every hour or two, but a large amount of variation exists, Theno said.

Large-scale production facilities typically test products within their own labs, which helps save time, while some smaller producers ship their samples to outside labs. USDA issued a guide in June that helps provide guidance for selecting a commercial or private lab for microbiological testing.

“It was encouraging to see the agency document the need for proper quality control, proficiency testing, and validated method use when analyses of meat and poultry samples are conducted,” said Robin Stombler, president of Auburn Health Strategies.

Because the lack of government regulations and mandates leave pathogen-testing protocols to be set by individual companies for the most part, procedures and rigor of testing vary widely from company to company. But the lack of regulations does not necessarily imply that most companies do not test to a sufficient degree.

“Of the major players, I think everyone is pretty aggressive at it,” Theno said.

Though frequent dialogue exists about reforming pathogen-testing standards (such as stricter government regulation) to ensure a safer food system, the issue is complicated due to the large number of constituents and considerations involved. These include the “needs of the public, the costs, the limits of technology that is available today, and how you’re going to enforce a lot of the regulations,” Goskowicz said.

Mandating that all microbiological testing be conducted in accredited laboratories is one idea for improving testing and the overall safety of the food that comes out of the nation’s food-processing facilities, but costs can also be a deterrent for some.

“The Food Safety Modernization Act would level the playing field so that the use of an accredited laboratory with model laboratory standards becomes the ‘right thing’ for all,” Stombler said.

It is important to keep in mind that although poultry-processing operations that adhere to, or exceed, USDA pathogen-testing requirements work toward preventing harmful bacteria from occurring on raw poultry, there is no way to actually eliminate the existence of this bacteria, according to USDA. This is why safe handling practices at the consumer level remain extremely important.

© Food Safety News
  • milkman

    The dairy foods processing industry requires official testing to be done in certified labs whose testing is regularly evaluated by FDA and cooperating states. This is not only for microbiological techniques, but also for chemical analysis on composition and adulterants, such as antimicrobials in the milks and products. I believe they offer a great model by which other food industries, like poultry could adopt.