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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Is the chicken safe that you bought at your local grocery?

Most consumers would be surprised that USDA/FSIS’s website explains chicken inspections as:

USDACHIC.jpgAll chickens found in retail stores are either inspected by USDA or by State systems, which have standards equivalent to the Federal government. Each chicken and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The “Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” seal insures the chicken is free from visible signs of disease.

How many of us can see bacteria or viruses on inspection? Few I think take a microscope to the grocery store.  In fact, according to the former head of FSIS, Dr. Richard Raymond, on March 16, 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced stricter standards that it hopes will reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination of raw broiler chicken and turkey carcasses. To read their press release, go to: www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome. The new standard for Salmonella contamination of broiler chicken carcasses is 7.5%. This new standard will go into effect in July 2011. Until then, the standard remains at 20%, the standard set way back in 1996.

ChicTest.jpgA few years ago ABC Good Morning America reported that “[t]he U.S. Department of Agriculture requires Salmonella testing at all poultry plants, but up to 20 percent of the chicken sampled can test positive.” At one poultry plant “[o]n average, about 5 percent of chicken tests positive for Salmonella.” However, “Good Morning America tested 100 packages [of chicken] and found that, for packages of chicken parts, 20 percent tested positive for Salmonella. For ground chicken, 54 percent tested positive.

In February I blogged about chicken testing being done in London where 20 grocery store chickens were found with some E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Acinetobacter baumannii, Mirabilis, and Micrococcus luteus.  A recent investigation by Canada’s CBC TV news found two-thirds of samples collected at major grocery stores in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal had bacteria resistant to at least one antibiotic.  Sounds lovely?

Also, interestingly, according to a recent study in the Journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, organically raised chickens carry less fecal Salmonella and anti-microbial Salmonella than conventionally raised chickens.  Salmonella prevalence in fecal samples were 5.6 percent and 38.8 percent from organic and conventional farms, respectively.

Prompted by the ABC, London, Candian and the Journal’s bacteria testing (and FSIS looking only at “visible signs of disease”), I hired a Seattle area lab to test chickens in several retail stores throughout the Seattle area in the last month – even before the recent PEW tests. I plan on releasing the test results this week.

  • John Munsell

    Do you remember in the mid-late 90’s when FSIS rolled out its version of HACCP? The agency said that the old style of meat inspection was inadequate to detect and remove invisible and newly-emerging bacteria such as E.coli 0157:H7, which caused the Jack In The Box outbreak in 1993. FSIS classified the old system as “organoleptic”, meaning reliance on the senses, such as smell, touch, and sight. The E.coli impacting JITB could not be smelled, touched, or visibly detected. Thus, the need for a new system which was science based, and not based on organoleptic inspection.
    FSIS even went so far as to criticize its previous system as “Poke & Sniff”.
    It’s interesting to see your comment above about the USDA Seal insures the chicken is free from visible signs of disease. For over ten years now FSIS has been warning us about the inadequacy of visible detection of disease. Interesting.
    Will be looking for your statistics later this week.
    John Munsell

  • Minkpuppy

    There’s a simple explanation for the discrepancies in USDA and test results from chicken sampled at the grocery store. The FSIS results are rigged at the plant. The Agency will deny it but I’ve seen it first hand.

    When the plants know their product is being sampled, as in the case of an FSIS salmonella series, they crank up the water pressure in the rinse cabinets and jack up the chlorine levels in the chill water.

    The inspectors know that this is happening and can do absolutely nothing about it because there’s no maximum limit set for chlorine ppm in the chill water. All the plant has to do is throw out some flimsy research paper that shows that the residual chlorine left in the chickens is “safe”. At the same time, the plants are poisoning every employee and inspector in the place with chlorine fumes. When the processing floor smells like a swimming pool, it’s a bad thing.

    Technically, the plants aren’t supposed to change anything in their procedures during salmonella series but the inspectors have no regulatory leg to stand on to stop them from doing it. The plants know it and take advantage of it.

    In addition to the chlorine-in-the-chill water hijinxs, you have to consider the handling of the product once it leaves the plant and enters commerce. The plants have no control over what happens once the truck pulls away from the loading dock. I don’t worry much about handling at the cold-storage warehouses, but some grocery store meat cases are pretty dubious. I’ve been in some large chain grocery stores that have obvious problems with the refrigeration units on their display cases and never clean the dang things out. The smell of old, decaying blood at the meat counter is enough for me to refuse to ever set foot in that store again. Consumers need to pay attention to the way the meat department is managed and scream bloody murder to the store manager and health department. If the meat case stinks like rotten something or other, it’s not clean! There could be contamination on that meat package that you could unknowingly transfer to the meat inside when you get it home and prepare it. Also pay attention to the temperature of the meat. When allowed to sit at warmer temps for an extended period of time, chicken and meat will grow bacteria like crazy, increasing the amount of salmonella found on the meat. If the meat feels a bit warm, I’d be wary of purchasing it. The chicken is so cold that it’s nearly frozen at the stores I shop at.

  • Dog Doctor

    Minkpuppy, I see nothing has changed since 1987 when I was working in plants. At that time we had to notify the plant when we were sampling so they could define the lot that was sampled. usually, they would start a new lot for our sample collection and end it as soon as we were done. So if the lot had a violation, they only had to recall or retain it. Nothing before or after. Minkpuppy, you have my sympathy and respect for continuing to keep up the good fight. I remember the right about frozen vs fresh poultry. To prove poultry was frozen you had to insert a thermometer in the breast meat and get a temp of 0 F but you couldn’t use a drill. So you could never take a temperature, that was a policy in the Southeastern Region at the time.

  • Bill Anderson

    The lesson here?
    Know your farmer. Don’t buy your chicken at the grocery store.

  • Bill Anderson

    And I think that the whole chlorine issue that Minkpuppy talks about is alot more scary than a few salmonella cells which are going to be nuked by the oven anyways.
    Also, kudos to Bill for pointing out the superiority of organic methods.

  • Minkpuppy

    Dog Doctor: Sadly, not much has changed at all. FSIS still refuses to crack down on the big plants for these stunts and they brass in DC still refuse to take anything the field has to say seriously. *sigh* . The “fresh” poultry reg still has the temperature limit at right above chicken’s freezing point. For all practical purposes, it’s frozen chicken IMO.

    Bill A:

    The chlorine fume issue is a big one. Inspectors have been complaining of health problems for years due to the formation of chloramine when the chlorine comes in contact with the ammonia used to run the refrigeration. Chloramine causes irritation of the eyes, nose and mucous membranes when inhaled. My eyes would water so bad, I couldn’t see. Apparently, no one has developed an air sampling test that will pick up chloramine so the Agency and OSHA has decided we’re all a bunch of whiny babies. I had non-stop sinus problems and infections while I worked in the chicken plants. Once I left chicken inspection, the sinus problems went away with the exception of seasonal allergies. My migraines improved also. The Agency party line is basically “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” Whatever.

  • Bill Anderson

    The chlorine/chloramine issue is bad, and so is the exccessive obsessive use of Quats because of the residues they leave behind. From my understanding, Quats are prohibitted in the E.U. for food processing. And of course, young high moisture raw milk cheese is allowed there.
    Any correlation? You betcha. Buy fresh, buy local.

  • Minkpuppy

    Quats are still used in foot baths and as equipment sanitizers in the meat industry- I haven’t run across any EU restrictions for it in the meat export requirements. The typical double standard.
    Russia refuses poultry treated with chlorinated water. Their export requirements have reduced the chlorine use in Russian approved plants. I think they use peroxyacetic acid washes now.

  • Bill Anderson

    hmmm… perhaps its just in the dairy industry. I was told by a French cheese maker that they do not allow quats because of the residues they leave behind. Sounds like a good policy to me. He even looked at chlorine with skepticism. I’m all for peroxyacetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, etc… over the more toxic stuff like chlorine and quats.
    Unfortunately, in the U.S., we have a militaristic “nuke everything” mentality. It does not bode well for our overall health.

  • Minkpuppy

    Bill A.:
    I can understand dairy having much different standards than meat. Liquid milk can easily pick up residues off of equipment and bulk tanks and quats are notorious for killing EVERYTHING. The wrong quat concentrations in footbaths can kill off all the bacteria in a wastewater lagoon–actually saw that happen at a chicken plant I was inspecting. It was a bad deal.
    US meat exports are such a political game–there’s a constant battle with the EU and other countries over chlorine etc. The meat industry is lazy–there previously hasn’t been much of a drive to research alternative sanitizers and antimicrobial treatments. That is slowly starting to change however.