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Wal-Mart’s chicken safety program shows significant results

With four steps, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has taken a giant leap in poultry food safety, reporting a decrease of the frequency of Salmonella contamination of chicken parts to 2 percent.

Wal-Mart's Great Value brand chicken parts such as these drumsticks are now produced under stricter food safety requirements, as is all chicken provided to the retailer by U.S. suppliers.

Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand chicken parts such as these drumsticks are now produced under stricter food safety requirements, as is all chicken provided to the retailer by U.S. suppliers.

The multi-national retailer has been working with its U.S. chicken suppliers on stepped-up food safety requirements since December 2014. Suppliers of chicken parts such as drumsticks, breasts and thighs had until June this year to implement Wal-Mart’s four-part plan.

The plan is working, said Frank Yiannas, Wal-Mart’s vice president for food safety. Before the new supplier requirements went into effect, 17 percent of the chicken parts provided to Wal-Mart were positive for Salmonella. By January this year that number was cut to 5 percent.

By June this year only 2 percent of chicken parts from U.S. suppliers were testing positive for Salmonella, Yiannas said last week during a presentation at the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP).

Yiannas cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the motivation behind Wal-Mart’s focus on Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination of chicken.

The CDC reports 19 percent of foodborne illness deaths are from poultry. Despite government and industry attention to the problem, Salmonella numbers have remained steady for about 20 years and Campylobacter has increased 13 percent in recent history.

An increase in consumer demand for the convenience of chicken parts as opposed to whole chickens — which generally have lower rates of pathogen contamination — was also a factor in Wal-Mart’s decision to tighten food safety requirements for U.S. suppliers.

Wal-Mart’s four-part plan involves:

  1. Primary breeder stock interventions to reduce vertical transmission of Salmonella to broiler flocks and application of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Poultry Improvement Plan;
  2. Bio-control measures including vaccinations of broiler/breeder flocks and use of disease prevention best practices;
  3. Whole chicken process control using Regulatory Approved Intervention(s) to achieve 4-log reduction of Salmonella spp; and
  4. Chicken parts intervention practices to achieve 1-log reduction of Salmonella spp.

With Wal-Mart’s U.S. chicken suppliers accounting for 80 percent of all chickens sold in the United States, Yiannas said the enhanced food safety requirements imposed by the retailer are having an impact on chicken sold by other entities.

Foster Farms chicken sold at WalMart

These chicken thigh fillets are just one of the Foster Farms products now subject to stricter food safety requirements by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Backing up that statement, Bob O’Connor, vice president of technical services at Foster Farms of Livingston, CA, told IAFP attendees that food safety interventions at the company are system wide, benefitting all consumers, not just those who shop at Wal-Mart.

Also benefitting all U.S. consumers are new standards published by USDA in February. The standards were designed to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in ground chicken and turkey products, as well as in raw chicken breasts, legs, and wings.

The combined effect of the efforts will likely give 2016 a special footnote in the food safety arena, according to the CDC’s Robert Tauxe, director of the agency’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

During the IAFP session with Wal-Mart’s Yiannas and Foster Farms’ O’Connor, the CDC researcher said this year could be a “tipping point” in the fight against Salmonella, crediting USDA’s new standards, the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act and changes by industry such as those implemented by Wal-Mart and Foster Farms.

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