Foodborne illness is a huge health problem in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans — some 48 million people — gets sick each year from food that has been contaminated with pathogens such as norovirus, salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
Yet most people don’t realize they’ve contracted these illnesses from something they ate. Instead, they blame their intestinal symptoms — abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea, vomiting — on “the stomach flu.”
Unless they’re hospitalized, that is, and lab tests confirm the nasty source of their illness. Each year, foodborne illnesses send about 128,000 Americans to the hospital with serious complications, including organ failure, sepsis and paralysis. About 3,000 people die.
These are mostly preventable illnesses and deaths, yet we seem as a country to be unwilling to take the necessary regulatory steps to minimize the risk. And so people keep getting ill — and keep buying unsafe food.
Chicken and salmonella
A terrific article published recently in the New Yorker focuses on one particular food — chicken — which is frequently found to be contaminated with salmonella, including a particularly virulent and drug-resistant strain called Heidelberg.
Salmonella, a bacterium, is the second-most common pathogen involved in foodborne illnesses in the United States (after norovirus), but it is the leading cause of foodborne-related hospitalizations and deaths.
And processed chicken is a notorious breeding ground for salmonella bacteria.
“A recent U.S.D.A. study found that twenty-four per cent of all cut-up chicken parts are contaminated by some form of salmonella,” writes Wil S. Hylton in the New Yorker article. “Another study, by Consumer Reports, found that more than a third of chicken breasts tainted with salmonella carried a drug-resistant strain.”
A yearlong outbreak
As Hylton details in his article, an especially potent outbreak of the Heidelberg strain began in spring 2013 and continued for over a year, despite the fact that health officials had quickly identified the source of the outbreak: Foster Farms, California’s biggest chicken producer.
A total of 634 people were officially identified as having been infected during the outbreak, and almost 40 percent of them were hospitalized. Fortunately, there were no deaths. Health officials say it is likely, however, that as many as 18,000 Americans became sick before they were able to get the contaminated chicken out of distribution. (Research suggests that for every official case of salmonella, about 29 others go unreported.)
Hylton explains the frustrating reason why it took so long:
Identifying the cause of an outbreak is much simpler than trying to stop one. Once officials have traced the contamination to a food producer, the responsibility to curb the problem falls to the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or F.S.I.S. In the summer of 2013, as the outbreak spread, F.S.I.S. officials shared the C.D.C.’s conclusion that Foster Farms meat was behind the outbreak, but they had no power to force a recall of the tainted chicken. Federal law permits a certain level of salmonella contamination in raw meat. But when federal limits are breached, and officials believe that a recall is necessary, their only option is to ask the producer to remove the product voluntarily.
Even then, officials may only request a recall when they have proof that the meat is already making customers sick. As evidence, the F.S.I.S. typically must find a genetic match between the salmonella in a victim’s body and the salmonella in a package of meat that is still in the victim’s possession, with its label still attached. If the patient has already eaten the meat, discarded the package, or removed the label, the link becomes difficult to make, and officials can’t request a voluntary recall.
Lax contamination standards
The levels of salmonella contamination that federal officials permit in chicken would, I believe, shock most consumers. The current standard for whole chickens is 7.5 percent, reports Hylton, which means that almost 1 in 10 bird carcasses can be contaminated. (Until a few years ago, that number was 1 in 5 carcasses.)
The standard for salmonella in ground chicken is, however, significantly higher — 44.6 percent.
“Which means that almost half of all your ground chicken that goes off the line can actually test positive for salmonella,” Urvashi Rangan, the director of food safety at Consumer Reports, told Hylton.
But there’s more. “Some products, such as cut-up chicken parts, have no performance standard at all,” writes Hylton. “A hundred per cent of the product in supermarkets may be contaminated without running afoul of federal limits.”
In January, the FSIS announced plans to establish a rule limiting salmonella contamination to 15.4 percent of packages. I’m not sure that’s going to reassure many people, however.
As Hylton points out, it is possible to get contamination down very low. In Denmark, he writes, “after a surge of salmonella cases in the nineteen-eighties, poultry workers were made to wash their hands and change clothing on entering the plant and to perform extensive microbiological testing. Sanctions — including recalls — are imposed as soon as a pathogen is found. As a result, salmonella contamination has fallen to less than two per cent. Similar results have been achieved in other European countries.”
There’s much, much more about chicken and salmonella — and about the efforts of consumer health advocates (and a crusading Seattle-based lawyer) to do something about this major health problem — in Hylton’s article. You can read it in the Feb. 2 issue of the New Yorker.
Warning: It may put you off chicken for a long, long time.