Report Investigating Linked Salmonella Outbreaks Blames Food Safety Agency

US - According to the latest update, 416 people have been infected by Salmonella Heidelberg in a series of foodborne disease outbreaks in the US linked to one chicken processing company. There have been no deaths but 134 confirmed hospital admissions, according to Jackie Linden. Another new report has criticised the country's food safety organisation for its handling of the outbreaks.
calendar icon 27 December 2013
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CDC Report Updated on Salmonella Outbreak

On 19 December 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its report, Multistate Outbreak of Multidrug-Resistant Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Foster Farms Brand Chicken.

According to CDC, as of 18 December 2013, a total of 416 persons infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 23 states and Puerto Rico. Thirty-nine per cent of ill persons have been admitted to hospital; no deaths have been reported. Most ill persons (74 per cent) have been reported from California.

Epidemiologic, laboratory and trace-back investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken is the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections, according to the CDC.

Pew Report Criticises Food Safety Agency over Salmonella Outbreaks

Two recent outbreaks illustrate a failure to protect public health and reveal weaknesses in Salmonella Regulation by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), according toa new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew).

The organisation says it has analysed the events surrounding two multi-state outbreaks of salmonella infections. It identified significant weaknesses in existing federal regulations and policies aimed at controlling salmonella contamination in poultry products.

Pew reports that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two multi-state outbreaks of salmonella infections - the first lasted from June 2012 to April 2013, and the second started on March 2013 and is ongoing - were linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms, the sixth-largest chicken producer in the United States. At least 523 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico were reported to public health authorities as having been sickened.

Based on estimates by CDC, however, these outbreaks may have sickened as many as 15,000 people nationally due to the under-diagnosis of salmonella.

According to Pew, the federal agency responsible for inspecting meat and poultry products - the FSIS - issued a public health alert for the second outbreak - but not the first. In neither instance did FSIS ask Foster Farms to institute a recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken to market.

The safe food project of The Pew Charitable Trusts analysed the events surrounding these two outbreaks. It has identified significant weaknesses in existing federal regulations and policies aimed at controlling Salmonella contamination in poultry products.

  • Current limits on salmonella contamination for chicken, known as performance standards, and related policies do not adequately protect public health.
    • As opposed to other pathogens such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, the FSIS does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in raw poultry but treats it as an indicator organism used to determine whether a company is producing safe food based on the level of salmonella found.
    • Performance standards, which are not updated regularly, are based on the national prevalence of the pathogen in a specific product instead of public health impact.
    • There are no salmonella performance standards for chicken parts, which are purchased more widely than whole chickens.
    • FSIS tests products at chicken-slaughter plants once a year except for those considered 'best performing', which are tested every other year.
    • Companies receive advance notice from FSIS before samples from their facilities are tested for salmonella.
    • FSIS cannot close a plant based only on results from its salmonella-verification testing.
  • As part of prevention-based safety requirements, poultry plants are not required to treat the presence of salmonella as a 'hazard likely to occur', or a significant risk that needs to be controlled during processing and production.
  • There are no requirements for farm-level control measures that would help reduce salmonella contamination in chickens before they arrive at slaughter facilities.

Pew's Recommendations

Based on its evaluation, Pew makes seven general recommendations for improving the control of Salmonella in poultry and strengthening the agency’s response to outbreaks caused by these bacteria. It says FSIS should:

  1. Reconsider its approach to developing and implementing salmonella performance standards so they are:
    • updated regularly to reflect changes in industry practices, such as the adoption of new technologies.
    • directly linked to public health outcomes.
    • useful in evaluating companies on a regular basis rather than one or two times over a two-year period as is currently the case.
    • enforceable, which may require legislative action.
  2. Issue performance standards for chicken parts.
  3. Conduct unannounced salmonella testing.
  4. Consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter into the slaughterhouse, which may require legislation.
  5. Communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible when there is sufficient epidemiological evidence linking illnesses to a company’s product, even if there is not a definitive link between specific products and patients.
  6. Close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food, and keep them closed until adequate control measures are in place.
  7. Be given mandatory recall authority.

Pew says that the recent outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to Foster Farms have uncovered serious weaknesses in FSIS salmonella policies and regulations. The agency should make significant improvements in controlling salmonella contamination to reduce the number of preventable illnesses caused by contaminated poultry.

Further Reading

The full report from CDC is available by clicking here.
You can view the full report from Pew by clicking here.

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