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Salmonella outbreak linked to chicken prompts call for action

6:08 AM, Dec 19, 2013   |    comments
A truck enters the Foster Farms processing plant on Oct. 10, 2013, in Livingston, Calif. The plant is one of three California poultry processing plants linked to a salmonella outbreak. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)
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A national outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that's been ongoing since October has sickened more than 389 people in 23 states and is hospitalizing them at double the rate expected.

In light of that, a report issued Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts says that current policies don't protect public health and need to be changed.

The outbreak is linked to Foster Farms brand chicken. The seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak appear to be especially virulent. Forty percent of those who fell ill have been hospitalized, compared with the usual 20% hospitalization rate with salmonella. A previous outbreak in 13 states that sickened 134 people with the same type of salmonella in 2012 was also linked to Foster Farms.

All this comes as USDA is changing how it deals with salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, cramps and fever and sometimes chills, nausea and vomiting for up to seven days.

But the agency is taking only "baby steps," said Sandra Eskin, the Pew food safety expert who wrote the report. "They're walking in the right direction perhaps but at way too slow a pace. We need a few giant steps."

Chicken is the most consumed meat in the United States. Americans ate 83 pounds per person in 2013 according to USDA. Salmonella is one of the most common food-borne diseases, responsible for more hospitalization and deaths than any other bacteria or virus found in food, according to studies by the CDC.

That's with the understanding that contamination is going to occur, said Dan Englejohn, deputy assistant administrator of USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. "It's not feasible to take a live animal and remove its outsides and its insides without there being contamination," he said. "But we can minimize it."

To that end, USDA announced a Salmonella Action Plan on Dec. 4 and is working on a new Poultry Processing Rule, he said.

In the past, the agency allowed contamination to occur as long as the processor removed it somehow, often by washing or using antibacterial treatments, said Englejohn. Now the agency is moving toward forcing "the prevention of the contamination. And if there's evidence that it's not happening then we slow down or stop the processing line."

Pew's Eskin is all for that, but wants to see something concrete. "There are too many words like 'considering' and 'developing' in the USDA's plans," she said.

"When more then 500 people are reported sick from two illness outbreaks associated with chicken, the systems we have in place are not working to protect public health. They need to be seriously reworked," she said.

Salmonella is widely prevalent in poultry, said Mike Doyle, who directs the center for food safety at the University of Georgia in Athens. His team recently finished testing chicken from Russia, China, Vietnam and Colombia and found rates of salmonella contamination ranging from 30% to 50%.

But not everywhere. Denmark and Sweden have a zero-tolerance policy for salmonella in poultry and typically have contamination levels below 1%.

Elizabeth Weise, USATODAY

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