10/18: Q&A on Salmonella Health Alert

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) recently issued a public health alert indicating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked some raw chicken products produced in California to a Salmonella outbreak.  Here are some commonly asked questions and answers:

What’s the latest? 

When a Notice of Intended Enforcement (NOIE) is issued to a meat or poultry plant by FSIS, as was the case in this instance, the establishment(s) must respond within the designated time frame to provide what corrective actions are being taken in response to the issues raised in the NOIE.

According to USDA officials on Thursday, October 10, Foster Farms submitted and implemented immediate substantive changes to their slaughter and processing to allow for continued operations.  FSIS inspectors will verify that the changes are being implemented on a continuous and ongoing basis and will perform increased sampling at the plants.

Over the weekend of October 12-13, Foster Farms installed six new processes throughout all of their facilities known to effectively lower the incidence of Salmonella.

The new measures include more intensive sanitizing of work surfaces and equipment and vaccination against this type of Salmonella for the hens and roosters that produce the chickens raised for meat.

The California Department of Public Health, CDC and USDA are working with Foster Farms to ensure proper manufacturing processes, and to ensure proper interventions are in place to reduce the presence of naturally-occurring bacteria.  USDA-FSIS inspectors continue to inspect and approve the safety of Foster Farms chicken daily.

What was the cause of the Costco recall of rotisserie chicken products in San Francisco ?

Costco’s El Camino Real store in San Francisco recalled an additional 14,093 units of rotisserie chicken products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella, USDA announced.  This is in addition to the 9,043 units that were recalled on Oct. 12.

“At this time, it appears that the problem may be the result of cross-contamination after the cooking process in the preparation area,” according to the USDA news release.

Is USDA’s public health alert a recall? 

This is not a recall; it is a warning to consumers that over many months’ time that there has been a link between certain strains of Salmonella Heidelberg in raw chicken and human illness.  These infections might have been caused by eating undercooked or improperly handled chicken.  The alert points to the need for more consumer awareness about proper cooking and handling.

FSIS has been unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period.

What is Salmonella Heidelberg?

Salmonella Heidelberg is the nation’s third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen, which can result in foodborne illness if not destroyed by the heat of proper cooking.

How can consumers prevent salmonellosis?

For consumers, the bottom line is that all chicken is safe when properly cooked and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer.  For chicken, that temperature is 165⁰F.  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 by clicking here.

Given average chicken consumption rates and the billions of meals that are served every day, the vast, vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience.

Did the government shutdown affect the Salmonella investigation? 

No.  FSIS has not discontinued its regular meat and poultry inspection services despite the government shutdown because it is considered an essential service.  As a result, in-plant oversight of food safety, application of proper product labels and humane slaughter are continuing normally.  By law, meat and poultry plants cannot operate without a FSIS inspectors present.

Further, on Tuesday, October 8, dozens of experts on foodborne illnesses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who were furloughed because of the government shutdown were called back to work, in part to help with the ongoing investigation but also to keep tabs on any other foodborne illnesses that may occur across the country.

What do chicken processors do to prevent Salmonella?

Poultry companies rely upon the best science, microbiology and technology available to reduce food borne pathogens to meet and exceed USDA performance standards for Salmonella.  The industry’s voluntary initiatives and tens of millions of dollars in food safety research can be credited with the significant decrease in Salmonella prevalence in chicken over the last several years.

Since 1996, the meat and poultry industries have been operating under Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), which is a systematic, science-based and preventive approach to food safety that addresses potential biological, chemical and physical contamination of food products.  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 to identify potential food safety hazards, so that key actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate these risks.

When suitable, plants use a variety of intervention strategies at their critical control points.  In chicken processing plants, some interventions might include: the use of food-grade additives that kill or reduce the growth of potential microbial hazards; organic rinses to kill any surviving bacteria; and metal detectors to make sure that no foreign object makes its way into a product.

Microbiological tests for pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes are conducted by companies and federal laboratories.  These tests are another tool in the food safety toolbox and are an additional measure used to ensure that food safety systems like HACCP are working properly.

Is it true that these illnesses were resistant to multiple antibiotics?

The CDC has stated that only five of the Salmonella isolates from the illnesses were resistant to antibiotics.  Consumers should know that the frontline antibiotics used to treat salmonellosis in humans are fully effective.

Consumers should know that regardless of if a strain of Salmonella is resistant to an antibiotic it is not resistant to heat.  Research has shown that fully cooking chicken to 165⁰F will kill all Salmonella strains, antibiotic resistant or not.

Further, all resistances are not equal in terms of public health impact.  In the case of Salmonella, the two antibiotics compounds that are frequently used for treating invasive salmonella infections of humans are fluoroquinolones and 3rd generation cephalosporins.  To date, the isolates, or samples, examined in this outbreak do not show resistance to these two compounds  (http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-10-13/index.html).  Fluoroquinolones are prohibited from use in chickens and cephalosporins are used very sparingly, allowed only for control of disease in individual birds.

Does antibiotic use in livestock and poultry cause antibiotic resistant bacteria in food?

Foodborne illness outbreaks are not caused by the use of antibiotics to keep food animals healthy.  Resistant bacteria can appear for many reasons including, but not limited to, antibiotic use.

It is important for consumers to understand that antibiotic resistance does not make bacteria less resistant to heat.  Proper cooking kills both bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and those that are not.

One of the tools in the toolbox to ensure animal health and produce wholesome animal protein is the limited use of FDA-approved antibiotics, under the direction of a veterinarian, to treat and prevent disease.  The large majority of the antibiotics that may be used in chicken production are not used in human medicine and therefore have no effect on antibiotic resistance in humans.

Why can’t there be zero amount of Salmonella on raw chicken?  

While it is always the goal, a zero tolerance level on any raw agricultural product is not feasible.  That’s because all raw agricultural products – whether it is beans, beef, peppers or poultry – could contain naturally occurring bacteria that might make someone sick if improperly handled or cooked.  Raw chicken is not sterile.  For consumers, the bottom line is that all chicken is safe when properly cooked (165 degrees F) and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer.

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Address media inquiries to: Tom Super

Senior Vice President of Communications

[email protected] 202-443-4130