Ag Department Provides Answers Following Salmonella Outbreak

US - The US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) recently issued a public health alert indicating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked some raw chicken products produced in California to a Salmonella outbreak.
calendar icon 11 October 2013
clock icon 6 minute read

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council (NCC) asked if the USDA’s public health alert was a recall, to which the USDA replied that it was not a recall but a a warning to consumers that over many months’ time that there has been a link between certain strains of Salmonella Heidelberg in raw chicken and human illness.

"These infections might have been caused by eating undercooked or improperly handled chicken. The alert points to the need for more consumer awareness about proper cooking and handling," said a USDA spokesman.

FSIS has been unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period.

According to the USDA, "Salmonella Heidelberg is the nation’s third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen, which can result in foodborne illness if not destroyed by the heat of proper cooking."

When asked how consumers can prevent salmonellosis, the spokesman said, "For consumers, the bottom line is that all chicken is safe when properly cooked and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer. For chicken, that temperature is 165?F. Instructions for safe handling and cooking are printed on every package of meat and poultry sold in the United States – when followed, one can be assured of a safe eating experience every time.

"Given average chicken consumption rates and the billions of meals that are served every day, the vast, vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience."

According to the USDA spokesman, the government shutdown is not affecting the Salmonella investigation. FSIS has not discontinued its regular meat and poultry inspection services despite the shutdown because it is considered an essential service.

"As a result, in-plant oversight of food safety, application of proper product labels and humane slaughter are continuing normally. By law, meat and poultry plants cannot operate without a FSIS inspectors present," he said.

When asked how chicken processors can prevent Salmonella, the USDA spokesman said that poultry companies rely upon the best science, microbiology and technology available to reduce food borne pathogens to meet and exceed USDA performance standards for Salmonella. The industry’s voluntary initiatives and tens of millions of dollars in food safety research can be credited with the significant decrease in Salmonella prevalence in chicken over the last several years.

He said: "Since 1996, the meat and poultry industries have been operating under Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), which is a systematic, science-based and preventive approach to food safety that addresses potential biological, chemical and physical contamination of food products. HACCP plans consist of measures to protect the food from unintentional contamination at critical control points. HACCP is used in the meat and poultry industry to identify potential food safety hazards, so that key actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate these risks.

"When suitable, plants use a variety of intervention strategies at their critical control points. In chicken processing plants, some interventions might include: the use of food-grade additives that kill or reduce the growth of potential microbial hazards; approved rinses to kill any surviving bacteria; and metal detectors to make sure that no foreign object makes its way into a product.

"Microbiological tests for pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes are conducted by companies and federal laboratories. These tests are another tool in the food safety toolbox and are an additional measure used to ensure that food safety systems like HACCP are working properly."

The NCC spokesman asked if it was true that these illnesses were resistant to multiple antibiotics, to which the USDA agent said, "On a call with Foster Farms just prior to the release of the Public Health Alert, the CDC stated that only five of the Salmonella isolates from the illnesses were resistant to antibiotics. Consumers should know that the frontline antibiotics used to treat salmonellosis in humans are fully effective.

"Consumers should know that regardless of if a strain of Salmonella is resistant to an antibiotic it is not resistant to heat. Fully cooking chicken to 165?F will kill all Salmonella strains, antibiotic resistant or not.

"Further, all resistances are not equal in terms of public health impact. In the case of Salmonella, the two antibiotics compounds that are frequently used for treating invasive salmonella infections of humans are fluoroquinolones and 3rd generation cephalosporins. To date, the isolates, or samples, examined in this outbreak do not show resistance to these two compounds ( Fluoroquinolones are prohibited from use in chickens and cephalosporins are used very sparingly, allowed only for control of disease in individual birds."

When asked if antibiotic use in livestock and poultry cause antibiotic resistant bacteria in food, he said that foodborne illness outbreaks are not caused by the use of antibiotics to keep food animals healthy and that resistant bacteria can appear for many reasons including, but not limited to, antibiotic use.

"It is important for consumers to understand that antibiotic resistance does not make bacteria less resistant to heat. Proper cooking kills both bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and those that are not," he said.

According to the spokesman, one of the tools in the toolbox to ensure animal health and produce wholesome animal protein is the limited use of FDA-approved antibiotics, under the direction of a veterinarian, to treat and prevent disease. The large majority of the antibiotics that may be used in chicken production are not used in human medicine and therefore have no effect on antibiotic resistance in humans.

When the NCC representative asked why there cannot be zero amount of Salmonella on raw chicken, the USDA agent said, "While it is always the goal, a zero tolerance level on any raw agricultural product is not feasible. That’s because all raw agricultural products – whether it is beans, beef, peppers or poultry – could contain naturally occurring bacteria that might make someone sick if improperly handled or cooked. Raw chicken is not sterile. For consumers, the bottom line is that all chicken is safe when properly cooked (165 degrees F) and handled, and that chicken producers and processors are continually working to make them even safer."

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