Of course, properly cooking chicken (to 165ºF) as well as handling in a way that would prevent cross contamination would prevent foodborne illness. But we cannot blame the consumer. Reading through the comments section of each of news outlet’s articles, we can find a number of different people to blame.
- Congress - for furloughing government workers (although USDA inspectors are still on the job and this outbreak began months ago.
- Meat eaters – if people didn’t eat meat, they wouldn’t get Salmonella from chickens, except if we kept the chickens as pets.
- USDA – If they did their job, Salmonella would simply not exist on chickens. Although USDA has worked with processors for years, dropping the incident rate over the past few decades, Salmonella is still present although at a much lower incident rate (See graph below).
- The Industrial Processor – growing chicken in cramp quarters, washing them in chlorine baths, ,etc, is bound to have more Salmonella than that raised by the local farmers. Although work done here at Penn State found that it is probably not the case. (Story below or link at http://news.psu.edu/story/281316/2013/07/11/research/whole-chickens-farmers-markets-may-have-more-pathogenic-bacteria)
Certainly, poultry processors do want to ensure that the levels of Salmonella are as low as possible to help ensure that small mistakes made by consumers is less likely to result in foodborne illness.
USDA News Release
FSIS Issues Public Health Alert for Chicken Products Produced at Three Foster Farms Facilities
Congressional and Public Affairs
Richard J. McIntire
WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2013 - The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing a public health alert due to concerns that illness caused by strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are associated with raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California.
At this point in the investigation, FSIS is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period. Raw products from the facilities in question bear one of the establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package:
The products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington State.
This public health alert is being issued after an estimated 278 illnesses were recently reported in 18 states, predominantly in California. The outbreak is continuing. The investigations indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at Foster Farms plants are the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation.
The investigation is ongoing and FSIS is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence.
FSIS reminds consumers to properly handle raw poultry in a manner to prevent contamination from spreading to other foods and food contact surfaces.
FSIS further reminds consumers of the critical importance of following package cooking instructions for frozen or fresh chicken products and general food safety guidelines when handling and preparing any raw meat or poultry. In particular, while cooking instructions may give a specific number of minutes of cooking for each side of the product in order to attain 165 °F internal temperature, consumers should be aware that actual time may vary depending on the cooking method (broiling, frying, or grilling) and the temperature of the product (chilled versus frozen) so it is important that the final temperature of 165 °F must be reached for safety. Please do not rely on the cooking time for each side of the product, but use a food thermometer.
All poultry products should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165° F as determined by a food thermometer. Using a food thermometer is the only way to know that food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy foodborne bacteria.
Consumption of food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses. Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. The most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.
Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.
PSU News Release
Whole chickens from farmers markets may have more pathogenic bacteria
By Jeff Mulhollem
July 11, 2013
Whole chickens from farmers markets may have more pathogenic bacteria
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Raw, whole chickens purchased from farmers markets throughout Pennsylvania contained significantly higher levels of bacteria that can cause foodborne illness compared to those purchased from grocery stores in the region, according to a small-scale study by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Of 100 whole chickens purchased from farmers markets, 90 percent tested positive for Campylobacter and 28 percent harbored Salmonella.
By comparison, during the same period, 28 percent of raw, whole, organic chickens purchased from grocery stores were found to contain Campylobacter bacteria, and 20 percent tested positive for Salmonella. Fifty two percent of raw, whole, nonorganic, conventionally processed chickens from the grocery stores tested positive for Campylobacter and 8 percent of those contained Salmonella.
Overall, the chickens purchased at the farmers markets carried higher bacterial loads than the birds purchased at grocery stores.
The research, published online in the Journal of Food Safety, sheds some doubt on the widely held belief that locally bought poultry is safer, according to lead researcher Catherine Cutter, professor and food safety extension specialist in the Department of Food Science.
"Some people believe that local food is safer, but we want to caution that's not always the case," she said. Cutter suggested that concerns about antibiotic resistance and animal-welfare issues in large animal-agriculture operations that supply food to supermarket chains may explain why consumers are switching to locally grown and locally processed foods.
"We hope this small study will lead to more extensive research to determine why we are seeing the levels of pathogens in these products and to find ways to mitigate them," she said.
The significantly higher bacteria levels in chickens sold at farmers markets prompted the researchers to look for a cause.
"In the last decade, farmers markets have become an increasingly important source of food products for millions of Americans," said Joshua Scheinberg who conducted the research for his master's degree in food science." The popularity of farmers markets is no doubt a result of consumer demand for locally produced foods." Scheinberg continues working toward a doctoral degree advised by Cutter.
"As patronage continues to increase at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer marketing channels, the risks associated with purchasing fresh products directly from the farmer or vendor must be evaluated," Scheinberg added. "Potentially hazardous foods, such as milk, cheeses, and raw meat and poultry, also are popular at these venues."
Cutter and Scheinberg speculate that interventions, such as antimicrobial rinses, can lower pathogen levels on poultry carcasses.
"The fact that the chickens from farmers markets had much higher levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella indicated that there's something else going on," Cutter said. "So, Josh developed a survey for poultry vendors, with questions focused on processing methods, as well as food safety practices."
However, they found that many of the farmers/vendors may not be incorporating antimicrobial interventions during processing. As a result, the researchers now are preparing educational materials and food safety training for farmers and vendors selling poultry products at farmers markets.
Cutter noted that her role as an extension specialist is to develop science-based educational materials for farmers/vendors who sell poultry at markets, explain the applicable local and federal regulations, and emphasize the need for antimicrobial interventions to prevent a higher prevalence of pathogens.
"We are not doing the research to scare consumers or put people out of business; we're here to improve public health," she said. "We can train farmers and vendors to produce a safer product that won't make people sick. This approach also has the potential to help consumers feel more confident about buying their locally grown and processed products."
Bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, are destroyed by proper cooking of poultry products; however, they also can cause cross-contamination if they come in contact with other foods through contaminated cutting boards, sinks, countertops or utensils.
Scheinberg's master's thesis, "Comparison of Poultry Products Obtained from Farmers Markets and Supermarkets in Pennsylvania," is available online at https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/paper/15223/.
Broiler Percent positives for Salmonella during FSIS HACCP Verification Testing, 2004-2012