Fact:  Salmonella is a leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, with an estimated 1.4 million cases each year in the United States alone.

Lynne Terry of the Oregonian touched on the issue of Salmonella as or as not an adulterant in her story yesterday: “Foster Farms chicken linked to Salmonella cases in Oregon and Washington, health officials say.”  So, despite that the CDC reports 124 ill with over 30 hospitalized, 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, 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.

As Lynne reported:

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, which is one of 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.

“Salmonella in chicken is legal except when you have an outbreak,” said Dr. Emilio DeBess, state public health veterinarian.

“The fact that it’s legal to sell did slow us down,” Dr. Paul Cieslak said. “What do you do when it’s legal?”

Perhaps it is time to redefine Salmonella as illegal.  It is not like these outbreaks are rare – they are not.  Nearly 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 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 – as an adulterant. 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.

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 wholesome?