1 Photo & 3 Quotes That Explain Why You Should Watch Tonight’s Frontline About Chicken & Salmonella

Image courtesy of Frontline

Over 1 million Americans get sick from salmonella every year. The bacteria, especially in more potent, drug-resistant forms, is responsible for the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths of all food borne illnesses; all in spite of increased anti-salmonella measures by the poultry industry. One giant chicken company was recently responsible for sickening more than 600 people in 29 states, while the federal government was virtually powerless in demanding a recall.

Tonight, PBS news show Frontline will debut its latest report, “The Trouble with Chicken,” which investigates why salmonella outbreaks continue to happen and whether the current safety standards are doing anything to actually keep us safe.

In advance of the premiere, we give you a look at some of the episode’s most vital takeaways.

Salmonella Isn’t Just A Stomach Bug

The MRI scan on the left shows the brain abscess  that developed in an 18-month-old Arizona boy within weeks of eating salmonella-tainted poultry. [Image via Frontline]

The MRI scan on the left shows the brain abscess that developed in an 18-month-old Arizona boy within weeks of eating salmonella-tainted poultry. [Image via Frontline]

In Oct. 2013, several months into an outbreak tied to poultry producing giant Foster Farms, an 18-month-old boy in Arizona became infected after consuming a particularly potent strain of the bacteria. While the boy’s grandmother was correctly diagnosed with salmonellosis, the toddler’s doctors claimed his odd behavior was not due to salmonella because he did not have bloody diarrhea.

Weeks later, when his condition failed to improve, an MRI showed a large and growing abscess in his skull. Doctors had to perform a 4-hour craniotomy on the youngster.

“American housewives… normally are not ignorant or stupid”

Under current federal laws, the USDA is limited to compelling recalls of tainted food only when it “adulterants” are present. This generally refers to things like metals, pesticides or other chemicals that you wouldn’t normally find in a meat product.

Since salmonella is commonly found in poultry, and its mere presence is not considered unsafe, the USDA is hamstrung when it faces a situation like the recent, widespread Foster Farm outbreak.

But when the American Public Health Association sued the Dept. of Agriculture in the 1970s to have salmonella declared an adulterant, the government put the onus of determining when something was safe on the consumer.

“[T]he American consumer knows that raw meat and poultry are not sterile and, if handled improperly, perhaps could cause illness,” wrote the agency in 1971.

And in the ruling for APHA v Butz, a federal appeals court concurred, writing that “American housewives and cooks normally are not ignorant or stupid and their methods of preparing and cooking of food do not ordinarily result in salmonellosis.”

“They sniff, they smell and they look”

Critics, and even industry leaders, say this mindset of “you’ll know tainted meat when you see it” underscores an outdated way of thinking: the notion that a sniff test is sufficient for determining whether a piece of chicken is potentially problematic.

Back in 2011, Cargill recalled some 36 million pounds of ground turkey over salmonella concerns.

Mike Robach, Cargill’s VP in charge of food safety, admits to Frontline’s David Hoffman that the company had noticed increased levels of salmonella but initially chalked it up as a seasonal uptick.

“At the end of the day we weren’t taking appropriate action,” acknowledges Robach, who adds that USDA on-site testing of poultry has failed to keep pace with the times.

“I mean, you know, we have inspectors that are doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years and years and years,” Robach explains, “looking for abscesses or for… something that you can see. It’s kind of like they sniff, they smell and they look. That is not the modern way for us to be applying what we know from a scientific standpoint to providing good oversight.”

Robach says that the testing priorities for the USDA are still rooted in the early days of food saftey inspection, when the priority was keeping obviously diseased animals and carcasses out of of the marketplace.

But even though increased food safety has been successful in significantly reducing the percentage of birds testing positive for salmonella, outbreaks continue.

Critics point out that USDA only checks for the presence of salmonella, not the amount of salmonella found or whether it’s a relatively harmless strain or a potent one.

Additionally, they claim that the USDA focuses too much on checking whole carcass chickens, not chicken parts. This is in spite of the fact that 80% of chicken sold in the U.S. is sold cut into pieces. Cutting up chickens can have the effect of releasing salmonella that was buried in a bird’s skin.

During the Foster Farms outbreak, the whole birds at the company’s plants were meeting USDA standards. But when the agency then tested chicken parts at Foster facilities, it found that — at three plants — 25% of parts tested positive, predominantly for the potent Salmonella Heidelberg strain.

“Salmonella levels are going down. Human illness is not,” says William James, a former official with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “It doesn’t take a genius to understand that if this is going down and this is not, this must be the wrong standard.”

“The consequences were probably more letters”

Frontline’s Hoffman points out to Dr. David Goldman of FSIS that, following a 2004 salmonella outbreak tied to Foster Farms chicken, the agency sent Foster a letter for failing to effectively control the bacteria, and for not even listing salmonella as potential hazard.

Dr. Goldman explains that this letter was a way for FSIS to tell Foster, “we expect you make some changes” but when another salmonella outbreak occurs less than a decade later, “we all have to ask ourselves, did we, did they do enough?”

The doctor acknowledges that, because of the more recent outbreak of the same strain of salmonella at Foster plants, “then I don’t think they did enough.”

“And what are the consequences of that?” asks Hoffman.

Replies Goldman, “The consequences were probably more letters like that and more expectations on the part of the agency that they make some changes.”

Hoffman asks the doctor if the USDA can mete out some sort of punishment for Foster twice failing to prevent salmonella outbreaks.

“There is no specific action that I am aware of,” says Goldman.

There’s much more to the Frontline report than we can get into here. It airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide and will soon be available — along with supplemental content — on PBS.org.