As they're raised, chickens can peck at droppings and insects that carry salmonella and campylobacter. The bacteria settle in their intestines, usually without harm, and the chickens contaminate their environment with infected feces. When the birds are slaughtered, intestinal bacteria can wind up on their carcasses.
To minimize contamination, processors of poultry (and of meat and seafood) follow federally mandated procedures collectively known as HACCP (pronounced hass-ip), which stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. Those measures are in effect in slaughterhouses and processing plants and are the consumer's main protection against contaminated chicken. HACCP, implemented for poultry and meat plants in 1997, requires companies to spell out where contamination might occur and then institute procedures to prevent, reduce, or eliminate it.
Inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitor chicken companies' HACCP plans. They inspect carcasses and viscera for tumors, bruises, and other defects. During testing periods, they also pluck a broiler a day off the line and test it for the presence of salmonella. Plants that produce more than 12 salmonella-positive samples over 51 consecutive days of production fail to meet the FSIS-established performance standard, which triggers an FSIS review of the plant's HACCP plan. The plant would be expected to fix any problems; penalties are possible. To further motivate chicken processors to clean up their act, the USDA has begun publicly posting processors' salmonella test results online. (The data isn't archived, making it hard to assess a processor's performance over time.)
With this gentle prodding, poultry plants have improved, FSIS data indicate. Yet only 82 percent of broiler plants demonstrate what the FSIS calls "consistent process control." By the end of 2010, 90 percent of eligible plants should be able to meet that standard, according to FSIS projections.
That still leaves campylobacter. As we went to press in November, an FSIS spokesperson said that baseline data on the prevalence of campylobacter in broiler and turkey carcasses had been collected and were being analyzed and that draft performance standards based on those findings and a risk assessment would be ready by the year's end. FSIS testing for campylobacter would follow.
Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute and a former USDA official, cited "at least a decade of promises and failures to develop campylobacter baseline data and a standard." But she acknowledged that the FSIS could deliver a report on baseline data by the end of 2009. "It is essential," she added, "to have a performance standard for campylobacter."