You won’t see claims like this in any ads: “Our chicken is safer than our competitors’ chicken.”

There’s an unwritten understanding in the industry that food safety won’t be used as an advertising tactic.

chart USDA chicken salmonellaYet, in an important way, commercial chicken buyers can actually find out how chicken slaughter plants are doing when it comes to Salmonella levels, thanks, in part, to an innovative USDA strategy that makes it easy to use the Internet to monitor such statistics.

The good news is that according to a May 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture research report, “Public Disclosure of Tests for Salmonella in Chicken Slaughter Facilities,” it’s working (See chart at right.)

Not that having specific information about individual slaughter plants is a slam dunk. After all, as Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council is quick to point out, “poultry companies treat the safety of their products as a top priority — for their customers, consumers and the company’s reputation.  No matter what is posted online.”

Even so, transparency — having the information readily available to buyers — has had a lot to do with it, according to the research report authored by USDA Agricultural Economist Michael Ollinger and several other researchers.

Chicken Salmonella sidebarHow did it happen?
It all started back in 1890, when the pork industry asked for the inspection of hog bellies destined for foreign markets to certify that they were free of trichinella. Then, in 1906, Congress decided to require the pre-slaughter and post-slaughter inspection of cattle, sheep, swine and goats used for human food. The food safety needle was moving, but it took almost 60 years for chickens to get the attention of lawmakers.

Congress finally gave USDA some regulatory muscle in the Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968. The Act prohibited the shipment of adulterated or misbranded poultry products across state lines.

From there, things got better, at least from the perspective of the consumer. Upon the recommendations of various advisory groups, which were fueled by increasing concerns about food safety, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service decided more regulations were in order to make sure meat and poultry products are processed under sanitary conditions and that foodborne microbial pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella are controlled as best as possible.

That ushered in the rule, “Pathogen Reduction: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Systems” in July 1996. A complicated-sounding name to be sure, but one that had some commonsense to it. For example, plants need to identify at which points in the production process contamination can occur and fix those areas so it won’t occur.

FSIS inspectors make sure the establishments are meeting the rule’s standards by collecting randomly selected product samples and submitting them to an FSIS laboratory for Salmonella analysis.

The agency monitors the processing of more than 9.26 billion poultry carcasses each year to verify that federal food safety requirements are being met.

Chicken is a popular food choice in the United States. According to USDA stats, in 2016, Americans were expected to eat 92 pounds of chicken per person — a record amount.

A lot of that comes down to cost. Chicken is cheaper in the U.S. than it is in 63 other countries. Chicken costs 3.6 times as much in Switzerland than in the U.S., twice as much in France than in the U.S. and 1.5 times as much in Britain than in the U.S.

Blind buyers no incentive for high standards
Under the 1996 rule, chicken slaughter plants could have no more than 12 samples in a set of 51 samples of carcasses test positive for Salmonella. Those original allowable sample levels did come down eventually, but not until almost 20 years later, although many plants were already abiding by stricter standards to meet retailer and other customer demands.

At first, the Food Safety and Inspection Service used a complicated pass-or-fail alphabetized system to rate the slaughter plants. But because it used this sampling data for its own monitoring program, it published only industry-level Salmonella test results.

Those results showed the industry was generally meeting the FSIS Salmonella standard, but they didn’t give commercial buyers information about how individual plants were doing, which meant they couldn’t distinguish the high-performing plants from those that just barely met the FSIS standard, or didn’t meet the standard at all. Consequently, slaughter plants didn’t have much of an incentive to exceed the standards.

Car buyers in the U.S. could easily get a wide range of information about the good and bad features of specific vehicles, including government safety and performance ratings, but commercial chicken buyers couldn’t get information about the performance of individual poultry plants.

In 2003, FSIS announced it was planning to update the regulations for chicken. However, there was a hurdle. Salmonella levels didn’t drop from 2000 to 2003, so the agency could not justify a reduction in the Salmonella standard beyond that which existed in the 1996 rule. That’s because federal law requires that costs be factored into the equation.

FSIS inspectors working in a chicken production facility. Photo courtesy of USDA/FSIS
FSIS inspectors working in a chicken production facility. Photo courtesy of USDA/FSIS

Information to the rescue
With that legal reality before them, the agency embarked on a “hybrid approach.” It kept the existing Salmonella performance standard but also decided to use an easy-to-understand way for commercial buyers to identify plants with mediocre or poor performance on Salmonella tests.

The adoption of this public rating system was followed by a sharp drop in Salmonella levels on young chicken carcasses. In fact, USDA’s Economic Research Service reported the percentage of samples testing positive for Salmonella dropped by about 30 percent from 2006 to 2008.

Salonella facts sidebarThe trend continued. The decline of young chicken samples testing positive for Salmonella dropped by about 60 percent from 2006 to 2010. These impressive results paved the way for FSIS to be able to reduce the level of the number of samples that could test positive for Salmonella by about 50 percent.

In 2010, chicken plants were required to have no more than five out of 51 chicken carcasses test positive for Salmonella. The rule, which also dropped listing the plants with mediocre results, was implemented in 2011.

USDA’s agricultural economist Ollinger said an important difference between the 1996 and 2011 FSIS standards is that FSIS disclosed the identities of plants failing to meet the standard whereas there was no such disclosure under the 1996 regulation.

Going from no more than 12 out of 51 chicken carcasses testing positive for Salmonella to no more than 5 out of 51 is quite a difference, but the chicken processors had already proven it could be done.

Market forces and public information about Salmonella levels at individual plants — along with improved technologies — spurred the plants on to higher performance levels with the ultimate goal of winning more customers by producing safer chicken.

In a case of unintended consequences gone right, this ushered in stricter performance standards.  Ollinger refers to this as a “virtuous cycle.”

“It would only stop when the cost of further Salmonella reductions was too high relative to the benefits of lower Salmonella levels,” he said.

For commercial buyers, especially those working for organizations that serve food to hospital patients, the elderly, and other groups more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses, this was an important step forward because now they could see how the plants were doing. By choosing plants meeting higher standards the buyers could  have more confidence in the poultry.

Better performance meeting Salmonella control standards also suggests a producer is less likely to have pathogen-related recalls. Bankruptcies, damaged reputations, loss of sales, lower stock prices and closure of businesses are some of the examples of how devastating recalls can be.

As the USDA report puts it, recalls create some incentives for producers to invest in food safety.

There’s also some important background music here. Many commercial buyers actually go above and beyond FSIS mandates and require suppliers to meet even more strict food safety standards.

Not possible without the Information Superhighway
Ollinger said the Internet was critical in all of this.

“It gave anyone the capacity to learn of plants that fail to meet chicken standards,” he said.

He said the 2011 regs also played a large part. New food-safety technologies, along with contracts between suppliers and buyers, also had impact on producers’ policies and procedures.

ARS agricultural engineer Yud-Ren Chen is developing a computer-directed scanning system that could help speed inspection of the nearly 8 billion chickens processed annually through federally inspected U.S. plants. Photograph taken by Keith Weller (ARS).
One of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service agricultural engineers, Yud-Ren Chen, is developing a computer-directed scanning system that could help speed inspection of the nearly 8 billion chickens processed annually through federally inspected U.S. plants. Photo by Keith Weller/USDA ARS

According to a USDA report, “Regulation, Market Signals, and the Provision of Food Safety in Meat and Poultry” an Economic Research Service analysis found that 75 percent of the decline in the share of samples that tested positive for Salmonella correlated with the timing of FSIS’s disclosure policy on Salmonella performance and the new Salmonella performance standard.

Ollinger said the ordinary consumer wouldn’t be able to make much sense of the information on the Internet about how the plants are doing because the agency’s website identifies the plants by number s only.

“With some work, a consumer would be able to find out what company is producing the product,” said Ollinger, “but that won’t help when they buy chicken in the store because they do not know where it is being shipped. The information is very relevant to retailers and restaurants buying chicken from the plant. They know who produced it and something about their safety record.”

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