Fact:  Salmonella is a leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, with an estimated 1.4 million cases each year in the United States alone. This week, the CDC reported that 124 people in 12 states became ill with Salmonella and over 30 were hospitalized after being exposed to Foster Farms chicken between June of last year and January of this year.  Lynne Terry of the Oregonian touched on the issue of Salmonella as or as not an adulterant in her story yesterday–“Foster Farms chicken linked to Salmonella cases in Oregon and Washington, health officials say”:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates poultry manufacturers and tests samples harmful bacteria. But it does not have a zero tolerance policy for Salmonella, unlike E. coli O157:H7, which is one of the deadliest food borne pathogens. Instead, the agency allows manufacturers to distribute raw poultry provided samples don’t turn up more than a 10 percent rate of Salmonella contamination.

But there is a caveat: Food manufacturers are not allowed to make people sick.

“Salmonella in chicken is legal except when you have an outbreak,” said Emilio DeBess, state public health veterinarian.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) “Performance standard” (an odd term) for Salmonella contamination in young chickens is 7.5 percent, and the reality is that the contamination rate you will find in the store is likely even higher. Although many consumers know that chicken should be handled with care, most have no idea just how risky chicken can be.  That is because—as Lynne’s story pointed out—it’s technically legal to sell chicken that is tainted with Salmonella.  According to our own government, in 2010, some 35 Salmonella serotypes were distributed among 400 Salmonella-positive samples in random retail testing. Of the 400 Salmonella-positive samples, 171 (42%) were in found in chicken breasts, 202 (50.5%) were found in ground turkey, 7 (1.8%) were found in ground beef and 20 (5%) were found in pork chops. Of note, 43.3% of Salmonella serotypes found on chicken breasts and 33.7% of those found on ground turkey were resistant to more than 3 antibiotics. Perhaps it is time to redefine any Salmonella contamination as illegal.  It is not like these outbreaks are rare – they are not.  Nearly two years ago, in May 2011, as the number of illnesses were mounting in a Cargill ground turkey Salmonella Heildelberg outbreak and recall, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a regulatory petition asking the USDA to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Hadar, and Salmonella Typhimurium “adulterants” under federal law, making products that contain them illegal to sell. Perhaps it is time for FSIS to fulfill its public health mission and get antibiotic-resistant Salmonella out of the American chicken supply.  The danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply is well-documented and has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and by USDA itself.  FSIS own rules seem to require it:

(m) The term ”adulterated” shall apply to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more of the following circumstances:

(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health

See, 21 USC §601.  Yet, FSIS deems only one pathogen – E. coli– as an adulterant. Seriously, if Salmonella is found on chicken in a plant or in the drumstick you bought at the store for a barbecue, the FSIS’s position is that it is perfectly fine – until people start getting sick. Given FSIS’s Mission Statement, this makes little sense:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

How is Salmonella on chicken wholesome?