(Editor’s note: This is Part One of a recent four-part series by Lynne Terry on how Salmonella in poultry is handled in Denmark and the U.S. The series is being republished by permission from The Oregonian. Parts Two, Three and Four will be posted over the next three days.) The gauntlet begins with a walk into the entry area, where visitors strip off their clothes and shoes. Wearing little more than underwear and socks, they step over a 15-inch-high barrier to a second section with a sink, where they wash their hands and up to their elbows in hot, soapy water, drying them with disposable towels. Then they step over another 15-inch-high barrier into the third and final area of the hallway, where they don sanitized clothes and boots. Only then can they greet the chickens. This is Denmark, where chicken farmers disrobe, wash and dress before going to work. The country adopted stringent measures about two decades ago in a national effort to eradicate Salmonella from poultry following an alarming spike in human illnesses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also concerned about Salmonella, which causes an estimated 1 million food-related illnesses a year in the United States, about one-fifth from poultry. But while USDA announced a Salmonella plan last year that intends to curb contamination during processing, Denmark aimed for eradication. American poultry experts say eliminating Salmonella in raw chicken meat in the U.S., though not impossible, is not feasible, in part because of the size of the industry. U.S. processors butcher 8.5 billion chickens a year, compared with about 100 million in Denmark. At one time, Danish processors said it could not be done there either. In the end, the Danes succeeded through cooperation among leaders from industry, the government and scientific institutions. The effort was not cheap, quick or easy, but officials say there is no going back. “In Denmark, we have zero tolerance for Salmonella in chicken meat,” said Birgitte Helwigh, senior scientist at the National Food Institute of the Technical University of Denmark. That policy has reaped enormous benefits for consumers, Helwigh said, and saved millions of dollars in medical expenses. Health authorities have not identified any human cases of Salmonella poisoning due to Danish chicken meat since 2011, and they estimate there has only been about a dozen illnesses from Danish eggs. Surge of cases Denmark was jolted into battle by a surge of sickness. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the country averaged about 450 confirmed Salmonella cases a year in a population of 5 million. But in 1977, the number of illnesses started to climb, spiking at nearly 3,500 in 1988.
“They realized they had a Salmonella problem,” said Henrik Wegener, former director of the National Food Institute and now provost of the Technical University. “They also assumed they could do something to solve it.” No one knows exactly what caused the uptick. Bacteria can mutate and become more virulent. The Danish poultry industry had also changed. Once a scattering of small farms, companies merged and the industry became more centralized, with owners obtaining flocks from the same source. If those flocks were contaminated, so were the chicks. Bigger chicken houses also increased the chance for contamination. The bacteria, which can live in the intestines of healthy chickens, are spread among birds through feces. If the intestines are nicked during slaughter, the meat becomes contaminated. Industry turns to testing In 1989, the Danish poultry industry adopted the first voluntary control measures that were tweaked and tightened over time, eventually becoming mandatory. The first voluntary step involved testing broiler flocks for Salmonella three weeks before slaughter. Testing each bird would have been far too expensive, so the Danes collected fecal samples and tested them for bacteria. If the test was positive, the whole flock was butchered late in the day in an area reserved in the slaughterhouse for contaminated birds. The testing reduced human illnesses but not enough to satisfy health officials, scientists or industry. Farmers, especially, were disappointed by the results, Wegener said. “They spent quite a lot of money on testing and controls, but we really didn’t get to the bottom of the problem,” Wegener said. Retailer reacts With processors and farms struggling amid uneven results, in 1993 the largest Danish grocery retail chain stepped in with an ultimatum: Co-op Denmark told suppliers that it would not buy their chicken meat if they did not enact measures to curb Salmonella. The retailer, with nearly 40 percent of the market, told suppliers they had to destroy flocks that had a positive test prior to slaughter. Co-op Denmark also required companies to test a sampling of butchered meat. If any positives popped up, meat from that flock was rejected. The industry was dismayed by the requirement, said Karin Froidt, Co-op Denmark’s food safety manager. “They thought it would pass,” Froidt said. “But then we introduced Swedish broiler meat, which at the time had a lower incidence of Salmonella. They found out we were serious.” The retailer dangled an incentive, introducing a “Salmonella-free” label on raw chicken from companies that complied. That label carried cachet with consumers and fetched a higher price. Danpo, the country’s largest poultry processor, decided to follow the requirements, hoping to scoop up a bigger share of Co-op Denmark sales. But some smaller processors were reluctant to follow suit, said Jacob Roland Pedersen, lead veterinarian and senior manager of Danpo. “They thought it was impossible,” Roland Pedersen said.