Calling the development a food safety milestone, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Thursday that the government has approved a new spray that significantly reduces the amount of salmonella in chickens.
Salmonella is a leading cause of food poisoning in the nation, responsible each year for about 40,000 cases of stomach pain and diarrhea, some of them fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The treatment, a combination of 29 bacteria that operates under the principle of "competitive exclusion," was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last Friday. Beginning in May, it will be sold commercially under a USDA license by MS BioScience Inc. of Dundee, Ill., a subsidiary of Milk Specialties Co. The spray will be called Preempt.
In a speech at the National Press Club, Glickman said Preempt was tested on 80,000 chicks. It reduced the presence of salmonella to zero in treated birds, from 7% in untreated chickens.
Sprayed as a mist on newly hatched chicks, Preempt promotes the growth of 29 non-harmful bacteria naturally present in healthy adult chickens, thereby crowding out salmonella and preventing it from taking hold. The chicks ingest the harmless bacteria as they preen themselves in the early hours of life.
The Clinton administration has adopted food safety as a key priority and has vowed to invest tens of millions of dollars to improve inspections at the nation's borders and food-processing facilities. New regulations require regular tests for salmonella in poultry plants and tests in slaughterhouses to detect other forms of bacterial contamination.
"Without question," Glickman said, "our greatest weapon in the battle for food safety is new technology."
The National Broiler Council in Washington said it supports the technique, but spokesman Richard Lobb noted that "it has to be tried out" on a larger scale. The typical hatchery, he said, churns out more than 100,000 birds a day.
Randy Boyce, a spokesman for Foster Farms, California's largest chicken producer, said the company is "looking forward to being able to use it." However, he noted that Foster Farms, based in Livingston, has already achieved great success in driving salmonella to low levels by tightly controlling the environment and making sure that birds have clean water and feeding trays.
Moreover, he said, "the simplest way to destroy bacteria 100% is by properly cooking your food."
Zacky Farms, a big California producer with headquarters in South El Monte, has tried other "competitive exclusion" products with mediocre results, said Duane Herrick, the company's assistant general manager. He added, however, that if this spray "does what they say it will, we will certainly be among the first to use it."
Glickman said that new technologies such as this merely provide tools for the industry and that proper handling and preparation of food are still necessary to keep the nation's diners safe.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer group, praised the spray as a breakthrough, saying it takes food safety "back a step and gives the farmer a tool that's not an antibiotic." Consumer advocates and scientists have fretted that farmers' liberal use of antibiotics can lead to the evolution of resistant bacteria.
Preempt was developed over the last decade by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, partly with funding from Milk Specialties. The USDA holds the patent. John DeLoach, one of the inventors, left the agency and joined MS BioScience in 1996, a year after privately held Milk Specialties bought the license to market the product.
The company is already selling the spray in Japan. Trevor Tomkins, MS Bioscience's president and chief operating officer, said Preempt "has created a lot of interest among major poultry companies" in the United States.
He added that tests of the spray on chickens in Mexico proved effective in eliminating E. coli O157:H7, a lethal strain that has caused illness and death in individuals who have consumed products ranging from fresh apple juice to hamburgers. MS BioScience is also cooperating with the USDA on testing the technology on pigs and cattle.