Researchers: US poultry beset by salmonella, superbug threats

USDA says it is already taking some of the steps suggested by the reports

Chicken products produced by Foster Farms sickened hundreds of people in two salmonella outbreaks over the past 18 months.

Recent salmonella outbreaks in the United States that have sickened as many as 15,000 people show that federal regulators — especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — must tighten their standards, researchers said in a study released Thursday.

The findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts paint a stark picture of the shortcomings of officials’ efforts to prevent salmonella outbreaks and mitigate their effects on public health.

A separate study also released Thursday by a U.S. consumer group said that about half the raw chicken breasts in a nationwide sampling carried antibiotic-resistant "superbug" bacteria. The group called for stricter limits on use of the medicines in livestock.

It could be more difficult to treat people if they became ill after eating chicken with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, said Consumer Reports, which describes itself as the world's largest independent product-testing organization.

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for the relevant regulation, said it was already undertaking many of the steps suggested by the reports.

“The Consumer Union and Pew reports confirm the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent foodborne illness, including those described in the FSIS Salmonella Action Plan,” the FSIS said in an email responding to questions from Al Jazeera.

“The recommendations highlighted in these reports also underscore the need to move forward with poultry slaughter inspection modernization. The additional requirements in the modernization proposal, such as microbial testing, contamination prevention, and stronger food safety inspection activities will allow FSIS to make significant progress in reducing illnesses,” it said.

Salmonella risk

The Pew report examined two major U.S. salmonella outbreaks in the past 18 months, both of which emanated from plants run by Foster Farms, the sixth-largest chicken producer in the U.S.

The report said the response from the FSIS to both outbreaks was “insufficient to protect public health.”

“In the first outbreak, the agency did not issue a public health alert although it had previously done so based on comparable evidence. In the second, FSIS did not immediately suspend production in the three Foster Farms plants while the company worked to implement changes in its slaughter and production process.”

The report noted that in neither case did the FSIS issue a recall.

Regulatory shortcomings alleged by the Pew report included a failure to designate salmonella as a “hazard likely to occur” in preventive safety measures at poultry plants; giving companies advance notice before FSIS testing and thus lowering the likelihood of credible inspections; a lack of salmonella performance standards for chicken parts; and too few inspections at chicken-slaughtering plants.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Meanwhile, the Consumer Reports study said practices such as the use of antibiotics by chicken producers risked exacerbating a growing trend of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The group said it tested for six types of bacteria in 316 raw chicken breasts purchased from retailers nationwide during July. Almost all the samples contained potentially harmful bacteria, it said.

Some 49.7 percent carried a bacterium resistant to three or more antibiotics, according to the group, and 11 percent had two types of bacteria resistant to multiple drugs. Resistance was most common for the antibiotics used for growth promotion and disease treatment of poultry.

Consumer Reports urged passage of a law to restrict eight classes of antibiotics to treating humans and sick animals. The law would be more effective, it said, than the Food and Drug Administration's plan, announced last week, to phase down the nonmedical use of antibiotics in livestock over three years.

In addition, it said the USDA should set levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter bacteria in poultry, and should give its inspectors the power to prevent the sale of poultry meat that contains salmonella bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Chicken is the most widely consumed meat in the U.S. Americans are forecast to consume nearly 84 pounds per person in 2014, compared with 53 pounds of beef and 48 pounds of pork.

Al Jazeera and Reuters. Additional reporting by Tom Kutsch.

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