February 23, 2024

Salmonella is Naturally Occurring… in Animal Intestines

Salmonella is naturally occurring. In the wake of outbreaks, like the one linked to Foster Farms chicken, it’s an often-repeated phrase meant to assuage consumer fears and absolve corporate responsibility. But the phrase leaves out a key piece of information, where Salmonella naturally occurs.

Salmonella Outbreak CaliforniaSalmonella lives in the intestines of humans and other animals. It doesn’t “naturally occur” on the boneless, skinless chicken breasts or the wings and drumsticks you buy at the store. It gets there through a process of contamination. People can only get Salmonella infections when they eat or drink foods that have microscopic amounts of human or animal fecal matter on them.

How does Salmonella get from the place where it naturally occurs to your kitchen table?

Like E.coli and other bacteria that inhabit the animal gut, Salmonella is shed in feces. It gets on your food through the process of slaughter, through cross contamination or through poor hygiene of food handlers, three processes that can all be controlled to limit the amount of exposure consumers have to this pathogen.

Salmonella is a pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria that can cause an infection producing symptoms including fever, vomiting and diarrhea, that last for a week. A small percentage of cases, where the infection moves from the digestive tract to the bloodstream, can be deadly.

The current Foster Farms outbreak, the second one this year, has a 40 percent hospitalization rate, 13 percent of those sickened have developed septicemia, the life-threatening blood infection. What’s more, four of the seven Salmonella strains associated with this outbreak are resistant to antibiotics.

Of the 1.5 million Americans sickened by Salmonella each year, about 15,000 are hospitalized and 4,000 die. Salmonella infections can also trigger long-term health conditions such as reactive arthritis which causes painful swelling of the joints, inflammation of the heart, spine, tendons and eye membranes. The direct medical costs associated with treatment of Salmonella poisoning total about $1 million each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Federal Meat Inspection Act defines a meat product as adulterated if “it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.”  To a lot of people, food contaminated with a pathogen shed in fecal matter meets this description, yet Salmonella on raw meat or poultry is not considered an adulterant.

For 40 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken the “consumer-as-kill-step” approach to Salmonella. It allows companies to sell meat and poultry that has Salmonella on it, with fingers crossed that no one gets sick, but it does have a standard that Salmonella should not be found on more than 7.5 percent of whole chickens processed at a plant. The USDA didn’t set a standard for parts. And neither did Foster Farms.

USDA inspectors found Salmonella on 27 percent of chicken parts samples they tested from Foster Farms plant in Fresno. Here’s what the FAQ on the Foster Farms website says about that: “Foster Farms consistently meets and performs better than the standards USDA has set, and our performance leads the industry. The 25 percent number you have been reading about concerns chicken parts. There is currently no federal standard for Salmonella for processing of chicken parts. The USDA has indicated that the industry average is around 25 percent. Even though the USDA has not established a performance standard for chicken parts, Foster Farms has committed to improving our processes in order to reach a 5 percent parts standard.”

If Foster Farms can reduce the amount of chicken contaminated with antibiotic resistant Salmonella that is sells to consumers, why hasn’t it done so already? Foster Farms chicken has caused 472 lab confirmed cases of Salmonella poisoning since June 2012. And, because the CDC estimates that for every lab-confirmed case there are 29 others that go unreported, that means 13,688 people have been sickened by Foster Farms chicken in the last 16 months. All of these illnesses could  have been prevented if Foster Farms had done a better job keeping Salmonella where it naturally occurs.



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