Questions & Answers about Salmonella

May 12, 2015

Food safety is the top priority for companies that produce and process chicken products in the United States, and the industry prides itself on delivering safe, affordable and wholesome food both domestically and abroad.  Chicken producers continue to meet food safety challenges head-on and have done an outstanding job of improving the microbiological profile of raw products.

Who oversees and regulates chicken processing plants? 

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is responsible for inspection at broiler chicken processing facilities (those facilities that process chickens for meat).  The U.S. meat and poultry inspection system complements industry efforts to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.

Rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken products produced in the United States, and all imported chicken products must also meet these federal standards.  All chicken products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by FSIS in order to reach American consumers.  By law, a chicken plant cannot operate without FSIS inspectors on site.

What is HACCP?

Since 1996, the meat and poultry industries have been operating under Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).  Originally developed for NASA to ensure the safety of food provided for astronauts in outer space, HACCP is a systematic, science-based and preventive approach to food safety that addresses potential biological, chemical and physical contamination of food products.  Written HACCP plans consist of measures to protect the food from unintentional contamination at critical control points.  HACCP is used in the meat and poultry industry as a preventative approach to identify potential food safety hazards so that key actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate these risks.

All plants must also, by law, maintain written Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures to maintain the cleanliness and sanitation in food processing environment.

FSIS inspectors continuously ensure that HACCP plans and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures are being followed.

What is Salmonella?

Salmonella are microscopic living organisms found worldwide in cold- and warm-blooded animals and occur naturally in birds’ intestines.  Salmonella may be present in a perfectly healthy bird with no negative health effects.

Are all types of Salmonella created equal?

No.  There are more than 2,000 different strains of Salmonella, the majority of which are not harmful to humans.  Most of these Salmonella strains do not make consumers sick if exposed to them.

But a few are.  What are chicken producers doing to make sure they don’t end up on chicken products?

Proper handling and cooking in the kitchen is the last step in keeping Salmonella off of chicken, not the first.

It all starts even before the egg.  Healthy breeder flocks lead to healthy chicks – measures are taken to prevent diseases from passing from hen to chick and to ensure that natural antibodies are passed on, which help keep the birds healthy.

At the hatchery, strict sanitation measures and appropriate vaccinations ensure the chicks are off to a healthy start.  At the feed mill, the finished feed of corn and soybean meal is heat treated, which kills any bacteria that may be present.  On the farm, farmers adhere to strict biosecurity measures and the chickens are routinely monitored by a veterinarian to keep them healthy.

At processing plants, the U.S. federal meat and poultry inspection system complements efforts by chicken processors to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.

Chicken processing facilities use a variety of strategies at key points that include: written HACCP plans; the use of food-grade rinses that kill or reduce the growth of bacteria; organic sprays to cleanse the chickens and inhibit bacteria; strict sanitation procedures; and metal detectors to make sure that no foreign object makes its way into a product.

Microbiological tests for pathogens are then conducted by companies and federal laboratories to help ensure that food safety systems are working properly.

Are these processes working?  What does the data show?

According to the most recent government data available:

  • 98.5% of tests for Salmonella are negative for whole chickens at large plants.
  • Chicken producers have reduced Salmonella on whole chickens 66% over the past five years.
  • Since FSIS began testing chicken for Campylobacter in 2011, the industry has reduced the incidence by 30 percent.
  • Americans on average eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, almost all of them eaten safely.

Those tests are for whole chickens.  What about chicken parts?

FSIS will soon be implementing a first ever performance standard for chicken parts, e.g. legs, breasts and wings, as part of its Salmonella Action Plan.

Since the fall of 2013, the entire chicken industry has been collectively exploring new approaches and technologies to reduce contamination on chicken parts in order to provide the safest product possible to our consumers, including strengthened sanitation programs, temperature controls and various interventions in chicken processing. This is something the industry has been proactively working to address, and the industry is committed to working with FSIS to make implementation of the performance standards for chicken parts a success for the industry, and most importantly, consumers.

What are performance standards?

FSIS requires poultry establishments to meet Salmonella performance standards as a means of verifying that production systems are effective in controlling contamination by this pathogenic organism. Agency inspection personnel conduct Salmonella testing in poultry establishments to verify compliance with the Salmonella standard.

What are some actions that FSIS may take if inspectors document food safety problems at a chicken plant?

FSIS procedures/rules of practice are clear.  FSIS can and will take enforcement action, which can include anything from suspension of inspection to referral for criminal prosecution for serious and/or recurring violations.

  • All FSIS in-plant inspectors are authorized to issue noncompliance records (NRs) anytime they see a violation, and plants are expected to promptly take corrective action to address the problem. If FSIS remains unsatisfied that the situation has been addressed, the agency can intensify inspection or take other regulatory action.
  • For repeated alleged violations, FSIS conducts Food Safety Assessments and issues Notices of Intended Enforcement (NOIEs) actions, which can result in regulatory action including suspension of inspection.  FSIS compliance activity continues to intensify if changes are not realized. If inspection is suspended, a plant cannot operate under federal law.
  • If a pathogen (or any hazard) is reasonably likely to occur in the absence of additional controls, plants are required to identify and address them in their HACCP plans.
  • Although FSIS does not have the authority to enforce performance standards that are not based on food safety/sanitation, FSIS is in the process of setting standards for several product categories and will make public those plants failing to achieve those standards.  And again, as in the case of NR issuance, FSIS will intensify inspection and take other regulatory action where warranted.
  • FSIS can take action to suspend inspection with evidence of insanitary conditions or shipment of adulterated products.

Through mandatory reporting by establishments of adulterated or misbranded product, CDC monitoring of illness outbreaks, and the agency’s own routine in-plant and in-commerce surveillance, FSIS is readily able to identify and respond to potential food-safety situations.

Is it true that 80% of the chicken sold in the U.S is “chicken parts?”

According to the National Chicken Council, 11 percent are marketed as whole chickens, 40 percent parts (raw breasts, wings, drumsticks, etc.), and 49 percent further processed/value added. The latter includes nuggets, strips, patties, and other fully cooked products that contain chicken. FSIS has zero tolerance for certain pathogens, including Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, in cooked and ready-to-eat products, such as chicken franks, lunch meat and fully cooked nuggets and strips.

Is chicken the leading cause of illnesses from Salmonella

According to the 2015 Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration report by the USDA, FDA and CDC, 90% of estimated Salmonella illnesses are attributed to products including seeded vegetables, row crop vegetables, eggs, fruit and other foods – not chicken.

Are chickens labeled “organic” more safe and lower in Salmonella bacteria?

Any raw agricultural product, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria. Whether it’s labeled “organic,” “natural,” purchased in the grocery store or at your local farmers’ market, there is the potential that fresh food could make us sick, if improperly handled or cooked.

USDA notes that it does not know of any valid scientific information that shows that any specific type of chicken has more or less Salmonella bacteria than other poultry.  Consumers should use proper handling and cooking instructions for all raw meat and poultry.

Why not treat Salmonella like the government treats E. coli O157:H7, e.g. declare it an adulterant?

FSIS has previously used zero tolerance policies to control E. coli O157 in ground beef. Some have suggested that this serves as precedent for similar action for Salmonella in raw meat and poultry products.  (Only E. coli that causes food borne illness has a zero tolerance, like the O157:H7 strain.)

While always the goal, a zero tolerance isn’t feasible for Salmonella in raw chicken.  According to a 2015 report by the University of Minnesota’s Food Policy Research Center, “Enacting zero tolerance policies for Salmonella will not necessarily produce the desired public health outcomes.”

The U.S. does, however, have a zero-tolerance policy for visible fecal contamination of chicken carcasses prior to entering the chiller at the processing facility.

Many food safety experts also say comparing E. coli in beef to Salmonella in chicken – or even European poultry industries to the U.S. industry – is like comparing apples and oranges.

Is antibiotic use in chicken production creating “Superbugs?”

As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated, “it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antibiotics as ’Superbugs‘ if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.” The strains of Salmonella Heidelberg associated with the outbreak on the West Coast two years ago were treatable by the most commonly recommended and prescribed antibiotics used to treat infections with Salmonella.

All bacteria, antibiotic resistant or not, is killed by proper cooking.

For those antibiotics that are FDA-approved for use in raising chickens, the majority of them are not used in human medicine and therefore do not represent any threat of creating resistance in humans. While minimally used in raising chickens, by December 2016, antibiotics that are important to human medicine will be labeled for use in food animals only to address disease and to be used exclusively under the supervision of a veterinarian.

When talking about testing raw chicken for Salmonella, what are “prevalence” and “enumeration?”

When a test is performed for Salmonella prevalence, it is looking to see if any Salmonella is present.  Whether there is one, one hundred, or one thousand cells, the test will return the same result: positive.  Enumeration tests for how much Salmonella is present. Some plants might utilize both methods, but current FSIS performance standards are based off of prevalence.

What steps can consumers take to avoid getting sick from Salmonella?

Even though we’ve collectively made tremendous progress in reducing Salmonella on raw chicken to all-time low levels, the fact is any raw agricultural product, whether fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria that could make someone sick if improperly handled or cooked.

Given that Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, the vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience.

But we want that experience to be safe each and every time.  All of the tests and technology and safety procedures are for naught if the chain of safety is not maintained by consumers in the grocery store and at home, so we’ve put together some food safety tips to help you out:

CLEAN

  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw chicken and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.

SEPARATE

  • Avoid cross-contaminating other foods. Separate raw chicken from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, your kitchen and in your refrigerator.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Do not rinse raw poultry in your sink – it will not remove bacteria. In fact, it can spread raw juices around your sink, onto your countertops or onto ready-to-eat foods. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry can only be killed when cooked to a safe internal temperature.

COOK

  • Cook chicken thoroughly. All poultry products, including ground poultry, should always be cooked to 165 °F internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer; leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking.
  • The color of cooked poultry is not a sure sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that poultry has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout the product.   Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, older adults and persons with impaired immune systems.
  • When reheating leftovers, cover to retain moisture and ensure that chicken is heated all the way through. Bring gravies to a rolling boil before serving.

CHILL

  • Make raw chicken or meat products the last items you select at the store.  Once home, the products must be refrigerated or frozen promptly.
  • Freeze raw chicken if it is not to be used within two days. If properly packaged, chicken can remain frozen for up to one year.
  • After cooking, refrigerate any uneaten chicken within two hours.  Leftovers will remain safe to eat for two to three days.
  • Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F or below.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator — not on the countertop — or in cold water.  To speed up the process, chicken can be thawed in the microwave. Timing will vary.
  • When marinating, make a separate batch of marinade to serve with the cooked chicken and discard anything that was used on the raw chicken. Always marinate chicken in the refrigerator, for up to two days.
  • When barbecuing chicken outdoors, keep refrigerated until ready to cook. Do not place cooked chicken on the same plate used to transport raw chicken to the grill.

For consumers, the bottom line is that chicken is safe when properly cooked and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer.  Instructions for safe handling and cooking are printed on every package of meat and poultry sold in the United States – when followed, one can be assured of a safe eating experience every time.  Additional food safety information is available from resources such as www.fightbac.org and www.chickenroost.com.

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