(Editor’s note: This is Part Four of a recent four-part series by Lynne Terry on how Salmonella in poultry is handled in Denmark and the U.S. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. The series is being republished by permission from The Oregonian.)
Denmark’s journey from a surge of Salmonella infections to the near eradication of the bacteria in chicken is a success story that could not easily be replicated in the United States, American poultry experts say.
The U.S. chicken industry is too big, they claim, and the reforms would be too costly, causing sticker shock in grocery stores. There also is no will among industry, regulators or retailers in the U.S. to follow Denmark and other European countries that have declared a zero tolerance for Salmonella in chicken.
“It is very impressive, but it’s not feasible in the United States,” said Scott Russell, professor of poultry processing at the University of Georgia.
U.S. regulators recognize that Salmonella poses a big problem, causing an estimated 1 million cases of food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tainted poultry accounts for about 17 percent of that and causes more deaths than any other commodity. The economic toll, including medical expenses and lost workdays, runs as high as $1.8 billion per year for Salmonella-tainted poultry, according to USDA and other economists.
Last year, amid the Foster Farms outbreak, the agency announced a plan to stem Salmonella. Its goal is to reduce illnesses by 25 percent by 2020. The plan, which is still being rolled out, includes a controversial overhaul of inspections, enhanced testing and a first-ever limit on allowed Salmonella in cut-up chicken.
Denmark opted for a more comprehensive approach, attacking Salmonella in flocks, poultry barns, animal feed and slaughterhouses. That tactic would be practically impossible under the fractured U.S. food safety system, officials and poultry experts say. No single federal agency in the U.S. has the authority to dictate the sweeping reforms that would be required.
USDA regulates meat, poultry and processed eggs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees animal feed and raw eggs, along with the bulk of the food supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authority over pesticide use and animal waste on the farm.
“We have very limited authority of what we can do,” said Dan Engeljohn, inspection chief at USDA.
Most strains of Salmonella do not harm chickens. The bacteria live in their guts, and the birds are healthy. But two strains that sicken birds – Salmonella pullorum and Salmonella gallinarum – can devastate flocks. The bacteria threatened to wipe out the U.S. poultry industry in the early part of the past century, prompting creation in 1930 of the National Poultry Improvement Plan, a joint venture involving the poultry industry, federal government and state authorities.
The program, which still exists and is voluntary, involves testing birds for the bacteria, separating and butchering positive flocks, tight sanitation measures in hatcheries and a Salmonella-free label, allowing for export and interstate commerce. As in Denmark, the plan relies on a top-down approach aimed at eliminating the bacteria in breeder stock to ensure infection-free birds in the next generation.
The U.S. program has been a huge success.
“They went after the (Salmonella strains) that make the animals sick and controlled them,” Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy chief of foodborne diseases at CDC. “We all have to ask whether a similar approach expanded to other types of Salmonella might help (stem human illnesses).”
USDA food safety officials say their authority starts at the slaughterhouse. USDA’s animal health service only regulates diseases in animals. No single agency appears to have a legal mandate to fight bacteria that can kill people but do not harm animals on the farm.
“That is an issue that Congress would have to deal with,” said Engeljohn of the USDA.
But USDA does have the authority to ban contaminants in the food it regulates. The agency did just that in 1994 for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef. In 2012, it adopted a zero-tolerance policy for six other potentially deadly strains of E. coli.
Agency officials insist they lack a legal framework to ban Salmonella, based on judicial precedent and the intricacies of the law.
There’s also a cost factor. The Danish government spent $30 million to compensate farmer losses, but Denmark only slaughters about 100 million chickens per year, while U.S. processors butcher 8.5 billion.
“In order to do what they did in Denmark, we’d have to retrofit all of the (chicken) houses and that would be cost-prohibitive,” said Russell of the University of Georgia.
The retail price of chicken would soar, with the industry pricing itself out of the business, Russell said. Danish chicken meat costs about double the average price here.
“That’s the thing about the U.S.,” Russell added. “They simply will stop buying chicken if it becomes more expensive than beef.”
For now, the onus on avoiding chicken-related Salmonella illnesses rests with consumers, although industry is stepping up to curb contamination, according to Charles Hofacre, a leading poultry veterinarian and professor at the University of Georgia.
Companies are using new products on farms and experimenting with antimicrobial washes and other techniques in slaughterhouses. But getting results will take time, he said.
“It’s a monumental task to eliminate normal bacteria from the intestine of a chicken,” Hofacre said. “If it was easy, I promise you the poultry industry would take care of it in a heartbeat. The last thing they want is someone to get sick from eating their products.”© Food Safety News