Well, we are having yet another Salmonella outbreak linked to birds, this time chickens.

The USDA FSIS has a (oddly termed) “Performance standard” for Salmonella in young chickens at 7.5 percent, and the reality is that what you will find in the store is likely even higher.

Although many consumers know that chicken should be handled with care, most have no idea just how risky chicken can be.  That is because it is technically legal to sell chicken that is tainted with Salmonella.  According to our own government (when it is operating), for 2010, some 35 Salmonella Serotypes were distributed among 400 Salmonella positive samples in random retail testing. Of the 400 Salmonella positive samples, 171 (42%) were in found in Chicken Breasts, 202 (50.5%) were found in Ground Turkey, 7 (1.8%) were found in Ground Beef and 20 (5%) were found in Pork Chops. Of note, 43.3% of Chicken Breasts and 33.7% of Ground Turkey were resistant to more than 3 antibiotics.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates poultry manufacturers and tests samples harmful bacteria. But it does not have a zero tolerance policy for Salmonella, unlike E. coli O157:H7 (and six others), which is/are the deadliest food borne pathogens. Instead, the agency allows manufacturers to distribute raw poultry provided samples don’t turn up more than a 10 percent rate of Salmonella contamination.

Perhaps it is time to redefine Salmonella as illegal like its nasty E. coli cousins.  It is not like these outbreaks are rare – they are not.  Two years ago, in May 2011, as the number of illnesses were mounting in a Cargill ground turkey Salmonella Heildelberg outbreak and recall, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a regulatory petition asking the USDA to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Hadar, and Salmonella Typhimurium “adulterants” under federal law, making products that contain them illegal to sell.

Perhaps it is time for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) to fulfill its public health mission and to at least get antibiotic-resistant Salmonella out of the American chicken supply.  The danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the food supply is well-documented and has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and by USDA itself.  Even the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) own rules seem to require it:

(m) The term ”adulterated” shall apply to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more of the following circumstances:

(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health

See, 21 USC §601.  Yet, FSIS deems only one pathogen – E. coli O157:H7 (and, again six other E. coli’s) – as adulterants. Seriously, if Salmonella is found on chicken in a plant or in the drumbstick you bought at the store for the barbecue, the FSIS’s position is that it is perfectly fine – until people start getting sick.  But,  even then, a recall is prompted only when the bird or beef product is a ground product, not a whole product?

Given FSIS’s Mission Statement this makes little sense:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

How is Salmonella on chicken – or anything else for that matter – wholesome?