Since 2012, there have been two multi-state outbreaks of Salmonella tied to Foster Farms chicken – the second of which is still ongoing. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 523 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico have been sickened in total. And, because of the underdiagnosis of Salmonella, as many as 15,000 more could have been infected.
One victim was 51-year-old Rick Schiller of San Jose, CA. He ate some chicken from Foster Farms in mid-September, and, within a few days, he had started vomiting and had serious abdominal pains. After two visits to the hospital, a 106-degree F fever and a leg that swelled to twice its normal size and turned purple, Schiller found out he’d been infected with Salmonella.
Schiller still has problems with the right side of his body – his knee still hurts him, his dominant arm is now weaker than his left, he has some problems with the hearing in his ear, and his eye is frequently irritated. His doctors don’t know if these problems will eventually go away or if some will trouble him for the rest of his life.
“I could have died,” he says, angry about the company that he believes disregarded his health and thankful that his fiancée didn’t eat any of the contaminated chicken. “You took a perfectly healthy guy, and I could be damaged for life now.”
Spurred by the Foster Farms outbreaks, the safe food project of The Pew Charitable Trusts decided to analyze federal regulations and policies aimed at controlling Salmonella contamination in poultry products.
“When you have more than 500 people getting sick from chicken, the government policies and the system in place to ensure that that chicken is safe are not working,” says Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Health Group Food Safety Campaign.
The new report identifies the significant weaknesses in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) regulation of Salmonella and suggests how to improve.
According to Pew, the performance standards which limit the amount of Salmonella contamination on chicken are not effective enough to protect public health. Not only do they allow up to 7.5 percent contamination of young chicken carcasses and 44.6 percent of ground chicken, the standards are not updated regularly and not issued for chicken parts (which are purchased more widely than whole chickens).
The report indicates that Salmonella regulation is also disadvantaged because FSIS tests products at chicken slaughter plants once a year at most and companies know when the tests are going to happen.
To top it off, FSIS can’t even close a plant if its tests are positive for Salmonella.
“We need to have more public health protective limits on Salmonella contamination,” Eskin says. “We need them to be put in place quickly and updated regularly, and they should be directly linked to public health outcomes.”
If FSIS determines that it doesn’t have the authority to enforce such standards by issuing mandatory recalls or closing plants under investigation for safety failings, “they should ask for the authority to be able to do it,” Eskin says. “This is absolutely essential to their ability to try to reduce contamination.”
Another main recommendation in the report is that FSIS consider setting limits on Salmonella contamination when it enters the slaughterhouse.
“So much of the contamination begins on the farm, where the birds are raised, and it’s not clear who, if anyone, has authority there,” Eskin says. Limiting the levels on the incoming birds would not dictate how to get to that level or enforce it on the farm, but it could help prevent further contamination.
FSIS has been making attempts to address the prevalence of Salmonella. In early December, the agency issued its Salmonella Action Plan, which includes some of the same steps the Pew report recommends. However, some consider that report to be more aspiration than action.
“Salmonella has been a persistent problem,” Eskin says. “It’s challenging for the public health community and it’s challenging to the food industry, but we need to do more.”
Although it’s not the leading cause of foodborne illness (that dubious distinction belongs to Norovirus), Salmonella causes at least 1 million illnesses every year and is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of bacterium or virus found in food. And the national bill for healthcare costs associated with Salmonella infections could be as high as $11 billion a year.
Eskin says that various measures put in place by the government and by industry have been effective in reducing the contamination rates of other pathogens, but not Salmonella – something the Foster Farms outbreaks illustrate.
“Which is why we really need to have a serious conversation about what more we can do,” she says. “The government needs to take a hard look at their approach and see if they can find more effective policies.”
Editor’s Note: Rick Schiller is represented by food safety law firm Marler Clark, which underwrites Food Safety News.© Food Safety News