(Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory affairs for Cargill Inc., was interviewed for the FRONTLINE documentary, “The Trouble with Chicken,” which aired May 12, 2015.)

There were a couple of points I made in the FRONTLINE interview that were left on the editing floor. chicken-processing-406My opinion that Salmonella does not meet the level of concern as an adulterant was made in comparison to the adulterant status of E. coli O157:H7 in beef products. Ten cells of O157:H7 is capable of causing illness, whereas Salmonella normally has an infectious dose of around 1,000 cells based on work summarized by FAO. Based on this difference, Cargill’s Salmonella control focuses on levels of Salmonella in ground turkey as well as focusing on monitoring prevalence in accordance with USDA performance standards. We are in agreement with Dr. Bill James that the performance standard based on prevalence has not impacted the level of salmonellosis in humans caused by meat and poultry, and we need to be looking at the number of cells, not whether a product contains or does not contain Salmonella regardless of the level. By implementing a program that measures both prevalence and level of Salmonella and finding product that test positive at a higher level of Salmonella and removing it from the fresh marketplace, the risk of causing illness can be reduced. Another point I made during the interview concerns the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Along with good animal management practices, the responsible, judicious use of antibiotics helps advance public health, food safety, and animal health and well-being. There is no scientific consensus that antibiotic use in animals leads to a public health concern. The antibiotics to which the Salmonella Heidelberg involved in our 2011 ground turkey recall were resistant included tetracycline, gentamycin, streptomycin, and penicillin. None of these antibiotics are used in front-line therapy for human salmonellosis. Any proposals to change the use of antibiotics in animals should be based upon comprehensive, scientific analysis and risk-based evaluations that can ensure a public health benefit and avoid unintended consequences for human and animal health, well-being and food safety. Cargill does support judicious use of antibiotics under the direction of a veterinarian and the elimination of the use of antibiotics of human health importance for the purposes of animal growth promotion. As we improve food production systems, sometimes it is necessary to challenge the conventional wisdom in order to make necessary improvements. In the case of the control of human salmonellosis, it seems that now may be a time to challenge the wisdom of relying solely on qualitative measures and to incorporate other quantitative measures in order to make significant human health risk reductions.

  • Food Microbiologist

    Here is a reference for the FAO study you cited:
    That 1000 salmonellae for an infections dose went out the window decades ago with Blaser’s review. Sure, some serotypes and strains are not very infectious to humans but others are. Thus, I agree with Bill James that all salmonellae are not alike. For instance, “Can you say Salmonella Pullorum/Gallinarum boys and poultry growers?”
    The infectious dose varies with the strain’s virulence, the host’s susceptibility, and the food matrix. FSIS and the poultry industry should concentrate on the clinical strains that have been demonstrated to be “ordinarily injurious” and not the Salmonella Kentucky.
    As for antibiotic resistance, overuse of antibiotics will (& has) degraded their utility. But antibiotic resistance is different from virulence. The two factors are on different genes. Thus, an antibiotic resistant Salmonella may not cause salmonellosis. Concentrate on the virulent strains – they are adulterants despite USDA sticking its head in a hole. APHA vs Butz and Supreme Beef vs USDA were based on data that was suspect at the time but proven wrong in the past decade.

    • ctbigdawg

      First that is not 1000 individual cells but colonies made up of numerous Salmonella bacteria. Next as regards E. coli O157:H7 and the other STEC E. colis they produce a toxin that is harmful to those with weakened immune systems, and you are right about virulence, the host’s susceptibility and food matrix which has a part in all of this. One thing all of these discussions do not talk about is why the contamination levels of the carcasses and parts are so high coming out of slaughter plants. (1) Line speeds have a direct effect on contamination levels as you increase speed of the lines the higher the levels (2) Size variation of the carcasses such as the more variable in weight/size the higher the contamination levels as well.

      Next, if the products are cooked to lethality and then handled properly to prevent cross contamination then there would be no foodborne illnesses/disease and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. As far as antibiotic overuse by the food industry- no antibiotic should be used as a growth promotant but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Just like in human health the over prescribing by physicians, patients not taking their prescribed medications as directed and lack of sensitivity testing as well has contributed to this situation we find ourselves in with certain strains of human pathogens being resistant to our antibiotics.

  • TP

    This person has made a profound statement. If only we add made this type statement years back,
    and the governments listened.
    “we need to be looking at the number of cells, not whether a product contains or does not contain Salmonella regardless of the level”.

  • Tom Edlind

    The points made here about levels being important along with prevalence of Salmonella are good ones. Another factor not mentioned is strain: among the 2000 or so Salmonella serotypes, Heidelberg and a few dozen others are responsible for most foodborne illness in the U.S., just as O157 and other STEC strains are responsible for most E. coli foodborne infections.

    Regarding antibiotics, while it is true that tetracycline, gentamycin, streptomycin, and penicillin are not currently used to treat human salmonellosis, one reason for this is the likelihood of resistance, and so this is a weak argument in support of antibiotic use in food animals.

  • Veterinary Science

    The points above and below are some of the additional discourse needed on this topic. One other thing apparently left on the cutting room floor was independent scientific analysis by actual scientists. The two main interviewees wanting salmonella listed as an adulterant were both lawyers with agendas, and herein lies many of our problems with performing regulatory functions related to food safety. Cargill’s candid interview and recall covered in this piece was commendable, but the same cannot be said about Foster farms response and inaction.