Will New Poultry Standards Make Chicken Safer?

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Americans love chicken: the average American eats nearly 60 pounds of the poultry each year, more than twice the amount consumed in 1970. But how safe is the chicken and other poultry that Americans eat? Not very safe, which is why the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing stricter standards to reduce the incidence of bacterial infections associated with chicken and other poultry products.

According to results of a study issued by Consumer Reports in 2009, more than two-thirds of fresh, whole broilers available in grocery stores in the United States were infected with either campylobacter or salmonella. While this number is frightening, it is actually better than the 80 percent noted in the magazine’s January 2007 report.

Illnesses and deaths related to outbreaks of contaminated food have been a growing problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that an estimated 76 million people in the country are sickened each year because of foodborne contaminants, and approximately 5,000 people die. Food contamination has hit every corner of the food industry, ranging from beef and potato chips to spices, tomatoes, salami, dairy products, and most recently, romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli.

Food contamination troubles in the poultry industry have centered around certain pathogens, the most common being campylobacter and salmonella. The USDA’s proposed stricter standards would hold slaughterhouses more responsible for reducing the incidence of foodborne ailments by setting a percentage of sampled poultry that could test positive for these disease-causing organisms.

According to a statement made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “the new standards announced today mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against campylobacter,” which are the pathogens responsible for the greatest number of reported cases of foodborne illnesses in the United States, according to the CDC.

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Consumers may be surprised that until now, the government did not have any standards for campylobacter in poultry products. Campylobacter contamination, which comes primarily from eating undercooked poultry, can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever within two to five days of exposure. The diarrhea may be bloody and accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Not everyone who is infected with the bacteria develops symptoms. Occasionally the organisms spread to the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infection and death.

The CDC notes that in rare cases, campylobacter infection results in long-term consequences, including development of Guillain-Barre syndrome. An estimated one in every 1,000 reported cases of campylobacter illnesses leads to this syndrome, and as many as 40 percent of Guillain-Barre syndrome cases in the United States may be triggered by campylobacter.

The USDA is also proposing to tighten standards on salmonella contamination. This organism is responsible for about 1.4 million cases of food poisoning per year, as well as about 500 deaths. Although salmonella affects poultry, it can also be found in produce and other foods. The new USDA standards for salmonella would apply only to poultry.

The USDA estimates that their new proposed standards will result in about 65,000 fewer cases of foodborne illnesses: 39,000 fewer campylobacter infections and 26,000 fewer salmonella poisonings. Brian Mabry, a spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying the new standards would not make a big difference in the number of salmonella poisonings, and that most of the country’s food supply is not within the USDA’s area of control. However, “this is something we can do, so we’re doing it.” The Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over all foods except meat and egg products.

Therefore, while the proposed new poultry standards will hopefully reduce the number of foodborne infections, it remains for consumers to be the true watchdogs when it comes to food safety. For consumers of chicken and other poultry, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service offers information on how to select, handle, and cook these foods safely, guidelines consumers would be wise to follow.

SOURCES:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
LA Times, May 11, 2010
Life in the USA
Reuters, May 11, 2010
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

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