Two outbreaks of salmonella poisoning linked to the nation's sixth-largest chicken producer, Foster Farms, may have sickened more than 16,000 people this year - and underscored significant weaknesses in government food safety oversight, a new report finds.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service failed to adequately notify consumers of possible hazards, didn't demand recalls of potentially tainted chicken parts and allowed poultry producers to continue shipping the meat to stores, despite evidence of contamination, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts released Thursday.
"Based on the available evidence and circumstances, FSIS's response to both outbreaks was insufficient to protect public health," the report concluded.
The agency relies on limits for salmonella contamination in chicken, known as "performance standards," that are either outdated or, in the case of chicken parts, non-existent, the report says. And FSIS tests products at chicken plants just once a year, except for plants considered "best-performing" - like Foster Farms - which are tested every other year, with advance warning of the inspections.
But FSIS officials counter that they're working on improving monitoring of salmonella contamination in poultry, and note that the agency just last week issued a Salmonella Action Plan to address the nearly 1.3 million illnesses caused by the bacteria each year, including about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.
"Far too many Americans are sickened by salmonella every year. The aggressive and comprehensive steps detailed in the Salmonella Action Plan will protect consumers by making meat and poultry safer," Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said in a statement.
And representatives from the poultry industry note that the vast majority of chicken eaten in the U.S. is already safe.
"Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day, and about 99.9 percent of those servings are consumed safely," said a statement from the National Chicken Council.
Still, outbreaks of Salmonella Heidelberg in Foster Farms chicken - one from June 2012 to April 2013 and another from March that is still ongoing - highlight continuing problems with control of salmonella in retail poultry products, Pew officials said. Their report came out at the same time Consumer Reports said about half of raw chicken breasts it tested in a nationwide sampling carried antibiotic-resistant "superbug" bacteria.
"As we dug deeper and looked at the specifics, it became an issue of are we really doing enough to protect public health?" asked Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Health Group Food Safety Campaign. She said FSIS officials are not as aggressive as they could be.
"I think that they have a pretty conservative view of their authority, and they are careful not to stretch that authority," Eskin said. "They need to take the blinders off and have a much broader view."
In the case of the first Foster Farms outbreak, which started in June 2012 and sickened at least 134 people in 13 states, FSIS officials didn't tell the public about the potential problem. At the time, they said it was because they didn't have enough information to link the outbreak to specific products.
"We have to be sure that when we move forward with an enforcement action, that it will stick," explained Dan Englejohn, assistant administrator of the USDA's Office of Field Operations.
But in October, FSIS did issue a public health alert for a second outbreak that had begun seven months earlier - even though officials still couldn't say which particular products had caused the infections that sickened at least 416 people in 23 states, with 40 percent of the victims hospitalized. Part of the problem was that several of the outbreak strains were resistant to the most common drugs used to treat salmonella infections.
Together, at least 550 people were confirmed ill, according to information updated Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that number actually could be higher than as 16,000. The CDC estimates that for every confirmed case in a salmonella outbreak, there are more than 29 cases that actually occur.
One of those victims is Rick Schiller, 51, of San Jose, Calif., who developed a life-threatening salmonella infection caused by the outbreak strain after eating Foster Farms chicken in September. He's contacted Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler and says he plans to sue the poultry manufacturer over the illness that landed him in the hospital with a raging leg infection and left him 30 to 35 pounds lighter. He says that government health officials should have notified consumers far earlier.
"Immediately!" Schiller said. "This could have took my life."
One ongoing problem is that there is no regulatory requirement that raw meat and poultry be free of salmonella - certain levels of contamination are allowed in retail chicken and meat products sold to the public. These so-called performance standards allow 7.5 percent of samples of young chicken carcasses to test positive for the bacteria, for instance, and 49.9 percent of ground turkey, according to FSIS.
Food safety advocates have long called for salmonella to be considered an "adulterant" in foods, in the same way that E. coli O157:H7 - the culprit in illnesses caused by ground beef - has been classified since 1994.
In 2011, USDA banned six more strains of non-O157 E. coli from the beef supply, too.
But USDA officials say that court rulings, not agency preference, have limited their authority in declaring salmonella to be an adulterant.
"We wonder if FSIS is giving that court decision too broad a reading," said Eskin. "If they say they don't have the authority, then, OK, you need to ask Congress for it."
Pew officials also urged FSIS to consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse, as other countries have done.
But some food safety experts - and poultry industry officials - say that ridding chicken plants of salmonella would be a costly and elusive goal.
"Eliminating bacteria entirely is always the goal," said Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council. "But in reality, it's simply not feasible."
Englejohn, of the USDA, said that changes in poultry oversight are not as simple as they might sound. He said the agency's forthcoming new rules governing poultry slaughter, along with the new action plan, will address many of the concerns raised by Pew officials.
"We, the agency, do have to be watchful of overstepping our authority in our interpretation of the law because we can end up in court," he said. "Consumers have expressed that they want us to go further than we have been. I think we have taken precedent-setting actions."