I’ve always been partial to shades of gray, possibly because we didn’t get a color TV until I was almost 9 years old. That’s when I discovered that the black, white and gray stripes on the test pattern were in living color.

As seductive as those colors were, my fascination with black and white, and the infinite number of shades of gray between them, continues to this day. And I’m not talking about the 50 shades made infamous in recent years. Didn’t read the book. Didn’t see the movie. Probably won’t.

Most of the time grays are mislabeled or left out in descriptions of movies and photographs. “Casablanca” is in “black and white,” but it wouldn’t be anything without the gray tones in the background of Rick’s bar. The majority of people refer to the “black and white” photos of Ansel Adams, but he would have been the first to point to the importance of the shades in between those two extremes.

All that being said, I can’t deny my ongoing love affair with the high contrast players at the opposite ends of the gray scale, especially when it comes to stuff like food companies poisoning people. For me, that’s one of those black and white areas, which brings me to an announcement this past week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC says the Salmonella Infantis outbreak traced to raw chicken that sickened people in 32 states, killing one, was over as of Feb. 19. The outbreak had a hospitalization rate of 29 percent, which is higher than usual. The outbreak strain was confirmed resistant to a variety of antibiotics, which complicated treatment and recovery for patients.

Of the people who completed interviews with outbreak investigators, 87 percent reported “preparing or eating chicken products that were purchased raw, including ground chicken, chicken pieces, and whole chicken” in the days before becoming sick. Lab tests confirmed 129 people were infected during the year-long outbreak. Considering the length of the outbreak and the widespread nature of the contamination, hundreds of other people were no doubt infected.

Lab tests also confirmed the outbreak strain of Salmonella was present in raw chicken packaged under various brands. It also was confirmed in raw whole chickens, ground chicken, chicken pieces, and more.

“The outbreak strain of Salmonella Infantis has been identified in samples from raw chicken products from 76 slaughter and/or processing establishments, from raw chicken pet food, and from live chickens,” according to the CDC’s outbreak statement.

Both the CDC and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reported it is obvious the pathogen is widespread in the chicken industry. Both agencies reported they have and will continue to “engage” with industry regarding the problem. That’s a shade of gray I don’t care for — those gray areas that error on the side of business and industry instead of the public make me see red.

I understand animal agriculture, or any agriculture for that matter, is a complicated venture. I understand a democratic republic is a complicated system. I don’t understand why the government or the business community are willing to take risks with food safety.

The CDC gets a pass here, for the most part. The agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over poultry products or the businesses that produce them. The FSIS watches over the birds and beasts we raise for food. But, I’m pretty tired of the CDC continuing to harangue consumers about how they need to do more to avoid foodborne illnesses.

I do believe people need to get a clue and stop cutting up raw chicken on the same board they use for their carrot and celery sticks. However, I do not believe consumers have any blame when it comes to the pervasive pathogen problem plaguing poultry producers. I believe it is the responsibility of government to serve and protect us, and that includes doing more than chatting with food companies and industries when there are documented problems.

I checked in with the people at FSIS before writing this column. I wanted to make sure I understood what the sub-agency of Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue’s USDA is doing before I said it isn’t doing anything. Here’s the answer I got  when I asked what “engaging industry” means and whether there is a timeline for the engagement to turn into a double-ring ceremony. It’s exactly as I received it, except I deleted the extra spaces between sentences.

“The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has kept industry informed of the Salmonella Infantis outbreak through numerous meetings and will plan additional meetings as needed. FSIS has shared information with industry regarding the trends in identification of the pathogen in FSIS regulated establishments to help them focus their search for mitigations. The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) initially identified the Infantis strain through surveillance prior to the out-break investigation and will continue to monitor trends in antimicrobial resistance and communicate with industry as per NARMS objectives. Establishments are required under the regulations to have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to identify the food safety hazards reasonably likely to occur in the production process and have controls in place to prevent, reduce, or eliminate the hazards. FSIS inspectors perform inspection tasks to ensure establishments have adequate controls in place. FSIS also to collects and analyzes samples to assess pathogen controls. FSIS provides these sampling results to establishments in quarterly sampling letters. FSIS expects all establishments to consider the information presented to them via the quarterly sampling letters to be a guide in the evaluation of their process control and any potential improvements to increase food safe-ty. FSIS expects the establishments to take action, evaluate their process control, and improve them.

“FSIS established pathogen reduction performance standards for Salmonella as a measure of an establishment’s process control and effectiveness in reducing this human pathogen in poultry. FSIS data and ERS analysis show that sharing this information provides an incentive for establishments to do all they can to further reduce Salmonella levels, which is necessary to reduce foodborne salmonellosis and protect American families. FSIS is incentivizing high performance in meeting established Salmonella reduction performance standards by regulated poultry establishments through establishment specific category web postings. Such action has been shown to motivate firms to continually seek to improve performance in food safety which enhances consumer protection and can result in a reduction in human illness due to salmonellosis. This incentive could lead to industry-wide improvements in food safety practices. This action also allows the market to make more informed choices, with food safety as an active and transparent part of the process. FSIS Notice 32-18, “Actions to Take in Raw Poultry Establishments Exceeding Salmonella Performance Standards” describes the actions FSIS will take in raw poultry establishments that exceed the Salmonella performance standards. 

“It is important to note that Salmonella is prevalent and can be present in raw meat and poultry and in live poultry — no raw meat or poultry is sterile. Consumers can protect themselves by cooking their poultry and meat thoroughly. The cooking process kills the Salmonella. No one should be eating partially cooked or raw poultry. Additionally, it is essential that people wash their hands after handling raw poultry, meat and pet food to avoid cross contamination of other foods, spice containers, or kitchen surfaces. We encourage you to contact the National Chicken Council for information on what they are doing related to this outbreak.” 

Being the hard news kind of gal that I am, I had already decided I needed to check in with the poultry people. Friday I sent off a query to Tom Super at the National Chicken Council. I didn’t expect to get an answer in time for this column. That wouldn’t be fair. 

Good reporters give sources a reasonable amount of time to respond. It’s not realistic to expect that questions asked late Friday afternoon will be answered by Saturday night. I didn’t want to delay reporting on the end of the outbreak, though.

So here we are. 

My headline says it all: CDC says outbreak’s over; USDA says it’s ‘engaging’ industry; what will chicken producers say?

Please stand by.

In the meantime, riddle me this: Why doesn’t the government declare Salmonella an adulterant like it did with E. coli after the deadly 1993 Jack in The Box outbreak?

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