Americans eat more chicken than any other meat. Yet when it comes to food safety, poultry is fraught with risks that consumer groups say aren't being fully addressed by producers and federal inspectors.
That's the view of two reports released Thursday. The first, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examines two recent salmonella outbreaks linked to Foster Farms chicken and concludes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) lacks the authority to properly protect the public.
The second, released by Consumer Reports magazine, tested more than 300 store-bought chicken breasts and found bacteria lurking in almost every one.
At the core of both findings are calls to strengthen government oversight in the $70-billion poultry industry. Doing so would help reduce incidents of food-borne illness, which sickens 48 million people and kills 3,000 in the U.S every year.
"Making chicken safer to eat will require a revamping of the way that it's raised and processed," said Consumer Reports.
Coincidentally, the two studies arrive the same month the federal government outlined major new policies to tackle salmonella in poultry and address the over-use of antibiotics in raising meat.
On Dec. 5, the USDA said it would implement more stringent testing and sampling for salmonella in chicken plants and develop the first ever national standards for acceptable levels of salmonella contamination on cut chicken parts (currently, standards exist only for whole chickens).
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration moved to phase out many of the antibiotics administered to animals used as food to promote faster growth – a practice blamed for increasing antibiotics resistance in people.
Federal officials say the measures address some of the concerns raised by the reports released Thursday.
"The Consumer Union and Pew reports confirm the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent food-borne illness," a Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman said.
But Pew argues poultry oversight is fundamentally flawed because inspectors lack broad powers to shut down problem processors like they can for other serious pathogens such as E. coli 0157:57.
That's because salmonella is considered naturally occurring and nearly impossible to eradicate on poultry farms. Still, consumer groups say industry and government can do better by allowing shutdowns and recalls when the source of an outbreak is known.
Pew uses the example of two Foster Farms salmonella outbreaks: one that started in June 2012 in Oregon and Washington state and the other in March of this year that began in California before spreading nationwide.
In both cases, Pew said, the links to Foster Farms were clear but the response was insufficient.
"In the first outbreak, the agency did not issue a public health alert although it had previously done so based on comparable evidence," the group said. "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. In neither case did the agency request a recall."
In response, FSIS said in a written statement that the "evidence did not provide support for a recall in either instance, and in the first instance it did not provide the basis for a public health alert. The agency responded aggressively within its existing authorities to ensure that the actions taken would be meaningful to consumers and effective in dealing with the problem. The actions that we take need to be ones that we have legal authority to do."
Foster Farms and FSIS maintained throughout the outbreak this year that the company's poultry was safe to eat if handled properly and cooked to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Critics disagreed, noting the outbreak involved a virulent strain of Salmonella Heidelberg that displayed signs of antibiotics resistance and hospitalized twice the rate of people in a typical salmonella outbreak.
Salmonella isn't the only bacterium regularly found on chicken.
Consumer Reports said it bought 316 chicken breasts from major national grocery chains and found 79.8% contained enterococcus, a sign of fecal contamination; 65.2% showed a common type of E. coli also consistent with fecal contamination; 43% had campylobacter, which can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever; 13.6% contained klebsiella pneumonia, a potential respiratory illness; and 9.2% had signs of staphylococcus aureus, which can cause infections when exposed to broken skin.
Salmonella, which can attack the gastrointestinal system and cause nausea, vomiting and fever, was discovered on 10.8% of the sampled chicken breasts, Consumer Reports said.
The findings were consistent with the FDA's national antimicrobial monitoring system, known as NARMS. Among the major brands tested were Tyson, Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms and Perdue, according to Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports said even products labeled "no antibiotics" or "organic" contained high levels of bacteria. About half the 316 samples contained at least one multidrug resistant bacterium and 11.5% had at least two, Consumer Reports said.
"Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant," said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find."
Like Pew, Consumer Reports called for the USDA to be given wider recall authorities. It also recommended strains of salmonella resistant to antibiotics be handled like E. coli 0157:57, which allow for automatic plant closures and recalls from stores.