While the country’s poultry producers wonder aloud whether they’re even necessary, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued new compliance guidelines to reduce the levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken and turkey.  The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published the new standards–an update to guidelines published in 2008–last week.  

The new guidelines take some pretty dramatic steps, however:  the allowable level of contamination for Salmonella in young chickens, or broilers, currently stands at 20 percent or no more than 12 samples out of 51.  After the 60-day comment period when the new standard goes into effect, it will be 7.5 percent or no more than 5 positive sample tests out of 51.  Even more notable, the new guidelines address the problem of Campylobacter contamination in poultry, a first.

chicken-legs-featured.jpgThe National Chicken Council’s Richard Lobb says his industry is already exceeding those standards. The Council advocates and lobbies for the industry’s interests in Washington, DC.

Poultry producers Foster Farms and Perdue declined to comment on the guidelines and smaller, organic poultry producers in California did not return calls.

“The question is, how much more can we do?,” asked Lobb in a telephone interview. “Twenty years ago you’d say one-third of chickens had Salmonella, and now it’s consistently under 10 percent. The contamination level is considered fairly low.”

Current industry practices are pretty much in accord with the new guidelines already, according to a release issued by the National Chicken Council, but “it should be noted that the suggestion that human illness is directly linked to the microbiological profile of raw chicken is not very well supported by the data,” the release stated, “since the prevalence of human disease from Salmonella has been going up in recent years while the presence of Salmonella on raw chickens has been going down.”

That’s a bit of a sticking point between the large-scale producers the National Chicken Council represents and the FSIS. Over the past several years, while the rates of Salmonella infection have increased, the figures for infection as a result of eating contaminated poultry have dropped.

“If one line is going down and the other trending upwards, where is the correlation?” Lobb asked. “The major outbreaks have been in produce such as peanuts and peppers but, in fact, Salmonella is found in any warm blooded animal and any place where food is in contact with animals has such a potential.”

The FSIS doesn’t disagree that poultry contamination figures have dropped.

“But in order to get a positive public health outcome, we can’t rely on one strategy,” said Neil Gaffney, FSIS press officer. “We must have a multi-pronged and multi-agency approach, which we are undertaking through the President’s Food Safety Working Group and with our sister agencies,” the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Others, too, think more work is needed.

“It’s a huge step forward,” agreed Consumer Union’s Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for the consumer advocacy group in Yonkers, NY.  The lower averages cited by the poultry industry, however, can “disguise problems with outliers,” she said.

In 2009, Consumers Union conducted a now infamous study revealing a wide range of contamination levels among the country’s largest poultry producers with companies like Perdue and Foster Farms exhibiting dramatic extremes of contamination for Salmonella. While Foster Farms and Tyson were found to be the most contaminated–less than 20 percent of birds for either company were free of Salmonella–56 percent of Perdue’s birds were clean.  Organic chickens, on the other hand, had no Salmonella at all.

“It’s a useful number,” said Halloran of the National Chicken Council’s figures, “but it doesn’t tell you everything that’s going on.”

Actually, Lobb has similar issues with the numbers of illnesses FSIS claims will be averted by the new standards. After the guidelines have been in place for two years, Salmonella- and Campylobacter-related illnesses will drop by 26,000 and 39,000 thousand cases respectively, according to estimates from the FSIS.

Those numbers “threw people for a loop,” Lobb said. Given that even the estimates are based on estimates of the numbers of people made sick each year, Lobb is dubious of FSIS’s claim and even the USDA doesn’t have real data to back up the claims, he said.

chicken feed article pic.jpgDespite that, the FSIS is sticking with the numbers, based on figures from the CDC. The agency estimates that Campylobacter-contaminated broilers cause 400,000 illnesses per year, while Salmonella-contaminated broilers cause 220,000 illnesses over the same period. Given the higher numbers for Campylobacter, FSIS expects to see an even more dramatic turnaround in those figures, and expects to see “a shift of about 25 percent of establishments that currently do not meet the standard to meet the standard” thereby preventing 39,000 illnesses, said FSIS’s Neil Gaffney. A similar shift of 7 to 8 percent of establishments to the new, tighter standards would result in 26,000 fewer illnesses due to Salmonella, he added.

Regardless of the disagreements over figures, real differences of opinion are most apparent when each begins talking about the feasibility of eliminating the presence of the pathogens from the birds altogether. Whereas groups like Consumers Union insist producers and the USDA should concentrate on eliminating the presence of pathogens completely, Lobb said he doesn’t believe they can ever be eradicated entirely.

“There is some concern that the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” said Lobb calling the presence of bugs like Salmonella and Campylobacter “a natural phenomenon.”

The new compliance standards are, however, entirely manageable. Ninety percent or more of California’s poultry producers “are meeting or exceeding the guidelines,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, which includes nearly all the state’s commercial poultry producers, both large and small.

Despite that, Mattos is concerned that consumers may interpret the new guidelines to mean that poultry is completely free of pathogens. Both the California Poultry Federation and the National Chicken Council regard Salmonella and Campylobacter as naturally occurring organisms and their presence in the guts of poultry as nothing new.  Cooks have to be diligent, said Mattos from his office in Modesto, CA.

“Cooking destroys these organisms,” according to a press release from the National Chicken Council. “Safe handling and cooking instructions are printed on every package of raw poultry and meat sold in the United States.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however.

“We do not think the primary responsibility for safety lies with the consumer,” counters Consumer Union’s Halloran.  “It’s neither right nor necessary the chicken should be so contaminated.”