November 29, 2021

Chicken and Salmonella Infantis, the Neverending Outbreak?

When the CDC ended its investigation of a deadly Salmonella Infantis outbreak linked to raw chicken products in February 2019, it added an unusual note at the top of the posting. “This investigation is over. Illnesses could continue because this Salmonella strain appears to be widespread in the chicken industry,” it read in part.

Two and a half years later, the impact of that statement came into focus when an investigative report from ProPublica revealed that the outbreak, linked to a multidrug-resistant strain of Salmonella Infantis, has never ended.

“Many people are still becoming ill, and some of them gravely ill,” Robert Tauxe told ProPublica. Tauxe, who is the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, said the agency receives dozens of reports of illness linked to this strain each month, according to the report.

For every culture-confirmed Salmonella illness, the CDC uses a multiplier of 29 to account for undiagnosed infections. One internal CDC document that the ProPublica Team found estimated that this single strain of Salmonella Infantis is responsible for 11,000-17,000 illnesses per year.

And the strain is still frequently turning up in chicken.

On average, USDA inspectors have found this strain on poultry products more than twice a day so far this year, according to ProPublica. And because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) has no enforcement power these products contaminated with multidrug-resistant Salmonella head directly to store shelves, restaurants, and foodservice operations.

Chicken breasts, Salmonella Infantis

Widespread Contamination

When the CDC issued its final report on the outbreak in February 2019, 129 cases had been confirmed and one person had died. The illnesses were reported from January 8, 2018, to January 27, 2019.

The CDC said that during its collaborative investigation with the USDA, the agencies were unable to pinpoint a source of the outbreak because they were finding the strain everywhere. The multidrug-resistant outbreak strain turned up in 76 samples collected from live chickens, raw chicken pet food, and from chicken processing facilities.

During interviews with health officials, patients named multiple brands of chicken they had eaten before becoming ill. They also named multiple stores where they purchased the chicken.  The names of these companies were never disclosed.

But according to the ProPublica report, patients named Perdue Farms chicken more than any other brand. Health officials in two states, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, found the outbreak strain in packages of Perdue wings, thighs, and drumsticks purchased from three different grocery stores. And more than a quarter of the chicken samples testing positive for the outbreak strain came from Perdue plants, the report states.

A Review of Sampling Data

Food Poisoning Bulletin reviewed Salmonella sampling data going back to 2015 from the USDA’s website. The agency divides this reporting into two groups, whole carcasses, and chicken parts. In both categories, Perdue has more positive samples for the specific outbreak strain Salmonella Infantis Pattern 1080 than any other company. By a longshot.

Between 2015 and June 2021, the outbreak strain appeared on samples of chicken parts on at least 75 sampling days. Of those, 22 were produced by Perdue Foods. No other company broke double digits.

It was the same for whole carcasses. Seven of the 25 positive tests for the outbreak strain came from Perdue products. That’s more than double the number of companies in second place including Tyson which had three. So, for chicken parts and whole birds combined, 29 percent of the samples positive for the outbreak strain were Perdue products.

And it wasn’t just one problematic slaughterhouse for Perdue. Chicken products produced at seven Perdue processing facilities tested positive for Salmonella Infantis Pattern1080. These plants operate in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia and two North Carolina locations.

Finally, it should be noted that while Salmonella Infantis Pattern1080 is the only outbreak strain currently linked to an ongoing outbreak it’s not the only multidrug-resistant Salmonella Infantis strain. In fact, of the 193 Perdue chicken samples that tested positive for any type of Salmonella Infantis, all of them were resistant to at least one antibiotic. And all but five were multidrug-resistant.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin said recently that it’s time for the agency to rethink its approach to tackling the industrywide problem of Salmonella in poultry. “Reforms are long overdue and urgently needed,” said noted Food Safety Attorney and Food Poisoning Bulletin Publisher Fred Pritzker. “I’m not sure that people understand the serious illness that multidrug-resistant strains like Salmonella Infantis Pattern 1080 can cause.”

Pritzker Hageman Food Safety Lawyers

If you or a loved one have been sickened with a Salmonella infection after eating contaminated chicken, please contact our experienced attorneys for help at 1-888-377-8900 or 612-338-0202.

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