Esther French, Mattea Kramer and Maggie Clark, fellows with News21, a national university reporting project at the University of Maryland, recently conducted an investigation into the safety of poultry sold at certain farmers’ markets in Washington D.C. Their report appeared in the July 22 issue of the Washington Post. The investigation revealed some unsettling results and appears to indicate that food grown locally by smaller producers does not necessarily mean it is safer.

News21 sent samples of raw poultry to a microbiological laboratory for testing and analysis. The commercial tests detected the presence of Salmonella bacteria on raw chickens sold by a Virginia farmer at the market located outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters on Independence Avenue. In addition, tests showed that poultry sold by a Pennsylvania farmer at another nearby market was contaminated with Campylobacter. A USDA spokesperson said the department has suspended poultry sales by the vendor at its market as it conducts an investigation.

Importantly, News21 pointed out that both farmers, whose raw poultry tested positive for pathogens, are exempt from USDA inspections because they process fewer than 20,000 chickens a year. Accordingly, the USDA agency generally reviews exempt operations only if it receives a complaint.

According to the News21 article:

The findings from both markets highlight seams in the federal government’s efforts to keep the country’s food supply safe through a maze of federal, state and local laws that can be confusing even for the people charged with enforcing them. They also illustrate the danger for consumers who think they can find refuge in markets selling food grown locally.

Despite the interest in food from local growers, scientists say small does not mean safe. “From a food safety point of view, there’s no inherent reason why large production is, on balance, more dangerous than a small family farm,” said Bill Keene, senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division.

Benjamin Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said in some cases small farms may be less safe. “We’re finding that there’s less pressure on a vendor at a [farmers’] market to implement risk reduction because the perception is that the product is safe already,” he said. “At a grocery store, growers have all these specifications they have to hit, but that’s absent in the farmers’ market.”

These findings come at a time when public health agencies report that they have failed to reduce the number of Salmonella infections in 15 years, even as other foodborne illnesses have dropped.

Although it is not necessarily against the law to sell raw chicken harboring Salmonella or Campylobacter, those pathogens can cause serious illness and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.8 million people are sickened, 27,000 are hospitalized and 400 die each year from Salmonella and Campylobacter combined.

  • Doc Mudd

    Oops, so much for hobby farmer assertions that ‘small, local’ food is always pure and safe – no worries, only evil CAFO food is dangerous.
    These simply delightful birds were being sold by wonderfully quaint ‘small producers’ exempt from needlessly annoying regulation, inspection or testing under the “less than 20,000 birds slaughtered annually” metric.
    The investigators also found general confusion (always erring in favor of lazy, unsanitary condtions, of course) among vendors, market managers and USDA personnel about food safety requirements for exempt producers. The point was made that producers, themselves, decide if they are exempt – they do not have to register with USDA!
    Also, investigators observed some of this poultry packaged in leaky bags. Meat juices would contaminate vegetables and fruits in a shopper’s reusable bag, and the trendy canvass bag itself.
    Finally, investigators observed eggs at the markets without proper refrigeration, many with no refrigeration at all. Vendors, of course, claimed ignorance of any need for refrigeration.
    Pretty predictable outcome here. Interstate rules were being openly flaunted. General lack of understanding of basic food safety practices, a serious lack of concern for customer welfare. No oversight. A blissful laissez-faire, carpe diem sales environment.
    Left entirely to the customer to protect their family by guessing which foods might be safe, which are not…while being earnestly flim-flammed by a charming salesperson. What a dangerous circus.
    At the farmers market, at the CSA, at the organic co-op it’s caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor!

  • Gordon Clark

    There are without question problems to be overcome in food safety issues, even in the local markets. There are a couple of big differences, however, between local food and industry food, even when they are both contaminated with pathogens, that are not mentioned in the article.
    Industry food may be minimally inspected, but incidences of lax inspection or bribed inspectors are commonplace, and when pathogens are found, the companies usually pay a minimal fine, if that, and go right back to business. A local food producer, if it is discovered their food is tainted, is quickly removed from the market (as in this case), and could well go out of business. Second, when a local farm sells tainted products, it affects a small, very localized population. When industry sells it, it gets distributed all over the country, potentially affecting millions.
    Score two big and important points for local food production, potential pathogens and all.

  • Doc Mudd

    Please cite your references for bribery in the industry, Gordo.
    Local food sellers poisoning only a few of their neighbors at a time is a truly wonderful, fulfilling and triumphant experience…unless your kids or elderly parents happen to be the locals sickened.
    Drippy weepy chicken seeping into boxes and baskets, being cross-contaminated all over the market grounds with the groping and mauling over of veggies and fruits by every third shopper who happens along — just in time for you to bring it all home to your family. Yum, yum!!
    Hell, I’ve bought used cars that had been less man-handled, that had less groady gunk massaged into the seats than the average tomato or bundle of greens fondled all morning at the public farmers market.

  • federal microbiologist

    My advice to the DC Farmer’s Market vendors ?
    Just adopt the stances taken by corporate entities whenever copious quantities of fecal bacteria are discovered in THEIR meats:
    “Yes, there are some fecal bacteria on the meat we’re selling to you, but it’s the responsibility of you, the consumer, to be conscientious about Food Safety, to make sure you prepare the product properly, and to cook it thoroughly before you consuming it.”
    “You can’t test your way to a safe product.”
    (my favorite) “Ask Karen !”

  • Ben Mark

    I’m absolute for local grown food if it’s under sanitary conditions raised, packed and sold. But this seems to be the problem.
    I stopped at farms when I’ve seen signs on the road they have something to sell. From some I would eat off the table (not floor) but some I wouldn’t even eat a hard boiled egg in the shell.
    I haven’t seen pets‚Äô running all over the place in supermarkets as it is very common at farmers markets. It looks to me pet owners do their dog walking preferable on farmers markets where they can socialize, not paying attention what the pets are doing while they are chatting with the stand owner.
    When I’m sick from a food poisoning I don’t care if 20 others or many others are sick too.

  • Jason H.

    Think there’s Safe Poultry at the supermarket?
    Here’s a description of the findings from Consumers Union, in Consumer Reports Magazine, January 2010
    “Consumer Reports has been measuring contamination in store-bought chickens since 1998. For our latest analysis, we had an outside lab test 382 chickens bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states. We tested three top brands‚ÄîFoster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson‚Äîas well as 30 nonorganic store brands, nine organic store brands, and nine organic name brands. Five of the organic brands were labeled “air-chilled” (a slaughterhouse process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water).
    Among our findings:
    — Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in 9 percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens. That’s double the percentage of clean birds we found in our 2007 report but far less than the 51 percent in our 2003 report.
    — Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens. Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both, but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.
    — Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, showing that it’s possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacterium riding along. But as our tests showed, banishing one bug doesn’t mean banishing both: 57 percent of those birds harbored campylobacter.
    — The cleanest name-brand chickens were Perdue’s: 56 percent were free of both pathogens. This is the first time since we began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.
    — Most contaminated were Tyson and Foster Farms chickens. More than 80 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.
    Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms we analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.”

  • Doc Mudd

    And how does distracted finger pointing at the supermarket problem correct the farmers market problem, exactly?
    Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t resolve the farmers market problem. And that’s the point. Silly me for asking.

  • Jason H.

    Because the FSN article failed to report the whole News 21 reporting project story, which included markets and groceries…
    Houston, we have a Chicken Problem
    From the WAPO 7/22 article:
    “Altogether, five out of seven markets and grocery stores tested positive for campylobacter, and two of the five also tested positive for salmonella. It demonstrates how easy it is to find pathogens ‚Äî no matter which market or grocery store a consumer patronizes.
    In 2009, an annual Food and Drug Administration retail meat study found 21 percent of chicken breasts contaminated with salmonella and 44 percent with campylobacter.
    The findings come at a time of increased federal concern over food-borne infections linked to the two pathogens, which the CDC says are two of the most commonly reported causes of food-borne illness.”

  • Doc Mudd

    And, thus, the contaminated farmers flea market chicken vanishes, as if it does not exist and never existed??
    Sorry, dude, however much contaminated poultry may be found anywhere else, however many off-topic distractions you throw in our path, the reality is that local farmers market food is as likely to be contaminated with dangerous food poisoning pathogens as food anywhere.
    The added risk of cross-contamination in the deliberately, theatrically casual farmers flea market mob setting is vitally important to the safety of customers’ families.
    Same sorry old hobby farmer “defense”: deny, deny, deny; blame, blame, blame; distract, distract, distract.
    Instead, just give a damn about customer safety and clean up your act, man. Oh, that’s right, don’t need no stinkin’ health inspections – “it’s not necessarily against the law to sell raw chicken harboring Salmonella or Campylobacter”, so ‘good luck with that grubby overpriced fashion food I just unloaded on you, sucker’.
    As always at the farmers market, at the CSA, at the organic co-op, at the yuppie deli; caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor!—except-when-it-is-not-the-food-they-grew/

  • JasonH.

    All that contaminated Tyson, etc. brand name poultry that tested positive for salmonella and campylobacter from supermarkets, groceries, and mega retailers over the years came from fully inspected facilities that have yet to clean up their act, man. So who’s the sucker?

  • Minkpuppy

    Yes, Gordon, please cite your proof that all inspectors are bribed. I’ve been a federal meat inspector for 17 years and no one has ever offered me a bribe. Not once. Been sexually harassed a number of times and treated like shit for being female, but never a bribe attempt. I wouldn’t accept it if they did. We’re not even supposed to accept a cup of coffee, for crissake. Probably 99.9% of the meat companies out there wouldn’t even risk bribing a federal inspector.
    Never met an inspector that’s been bribed and only once has there been a hint of it (SVMO was aware that plant was watering down carcasses and didn’t act on it. He was fired and the plant management dealt with criminal charges.) I have seen several folks get fired over the “appearance” of impropriety–no actual crime is needed there. FSIS is adamant about getting rid of folks that might give off the appearance of wrongdoing and they are usually successful in running them off in one way or another. Inspectors aren’t allowed to fraternize with company employees outside work–that’s hard to avoid in small, rural areas where everyone knows everyone else.
    Federal inspectors have to sign off on conflict of interest statements yearly. Any ethics violators face strong disciplinary actions up to and including termination. The government has sued former employees for violating those rules.
    I’m personally getting tired of being accused of being corrupt when my co-workers and I are busting our butts trying to do the right thing. Actual proven cases of bribery in the meat industry are rare and are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. The companies are prosecuted and inspectors are terminated. Period.
    We are no longer inspecting in plants like those found in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” where bribes were commonplace. Today, if a plant official trys to bribe the inspectors, they will likely have compliance officers and US Marshalls paying them a visit. Unless, the plant is Mafia-run. Then I think I would keep my mouth shut and transfer out ASAP.