Each year, about 48 million Americans get sick and 3,000 die from eating food tainted with salmonella, campylobacter, and other contaminants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More deaths are attributed to contaminated chicken than any other food, with salmonella as the leading cause of death.
At the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, we are very interested in the systemic causes of safety problems in the food supply. This gives us a unique view of what continues to be wrong—and what is getting worse—about meat safety in the U.S. Despite attempts in this country to address meat safety and cleanliness at the processing plant, the United States continues to lag behind many countries when it comes to the safety of its meat. We believe that to be in large part because of the failure to implement systemic solutions, including sound practices in livestock agriculture and slaughterhouses.
We recently tested 316 samples of raw chicken breasts bought from stores across the country, and found salmonella on 10.8 percent of samples. We also found campylobacter, another pathogen, on 43 percent. (Read our report "The High Cost of Cheap Chicken.")
Chickens raised for meat in the U.S. are often treated with subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and promote growth. The Food and Drug Administration recently issued guidance that recognizes this problem and begins to address these uses. But much more is needed. The practice of antibiotic overuse can have disastrous side effects, as it can lead to antibiotic resistance in harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, which then makes it harder to treat people who get sick. We found at least one multidrug-resistant pathogen on about half of samples and at least two multidrug-resistant pathogens on almost 12 percent of samples we tested.
Part of the chicken industry approach is that if poultry are contaminated with feces during slaughter, some companies use chemical disinfectants and chlorine baths to disinfect after the fact.
Some will argue that these measures—antibiotics, disinfectants, chlorine baths—are necessary to control harmful bacteria. But these are Band-Aid solutions in a broken system. If we are serious about food safety, we have to take a comprehensive approach that includes monitoring, government enforcement, and changing how we raise and slaughter animals for food.
We are not the first or only country to face this problem. In Denmark, more than 65 percent of commercial chicken broiler flocks tested positive for salmonella contamination around 1989. The country put in place strict standards, addressing the roots of the problem and has prohibited daily doses of low-level antibiotics fed to healthy animals and chemical disinfectants. Salmonella contamination declined sharply. By 2000, rates were less than 5 percent. Systemic solutions were implemented throughout the European Union. In fact, government data show that 22 countries in 2010 met the European target for less than or equal to 1 percent contamination of two important salmonella types in their broiler flocks.
In the country with the world’s lowest salmonella rates, Sweden, the government requires chicken producers to also implement better practices including good hygiene in hatcheries and farms, prohibits chemical disinfectants and subtherapeutic antibiotics, and requires extensive testing and monitoring. Flocks are tested before entering the slaughterhouse and have to be destroyed if a bird tests positive. And the chickens are tested again after slaughter. Contaminated birds can certainly never be sold to consumers. (The US allows up to 7.5 percent contamination rates with salmonella of whole chickens, over 40 percent for ground chicken, and has no standard for salmonella in chicken parts).
In an attempt to address salmonella contamination in this country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released an Action Plan. The first item on the list is a so-called proposed modernization of poultry slaughter inspection. Currently, USDA inspectors in poultry houses inspect slaughtered chickens that hang upside down on a slaughter line, which zips along at a maximum speed of 140 birds per minute. A new USDA rule currently under consideration could increase the maximum line speed to 175 birds per minute—almost 3 birds per second. The “modernization” could reassign some of the USDA inspectors’ duties to plant employees. When it comes to better hygiene, USDA needs to set mandatory microbial standards for all meat products so producers have a clear safety target to meet.
The health and safety of the food system requires an action plan for change from the ground up. And the good news is that there are those farming on the progressive side of chicken production—a demonstration that it is possible and economically viable to produce chicken more sustainably.
We recently met Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures Farm in Georgia. He shifted from an industrial-style, chemical- and drug-intensive system to a sustainable model of farming, and his chickens are raised on pasture. His farm has four animal welfare label certifications. Many farmers are not only changing the way they raise the animals, but also how animals are slaughtered.