Five Salmonella Outbreaks Food Inspectors Didn’t See Coming

Posted on May 18, 2015 by

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Federal inspectors are inside every meat and poultry processing plant in this country. The problem is, their efforts sometimes fail to identify salmonella — a potentially deadly pathogen that sickens more than a million Americans each year, about 200,000 from contaminated poultry.

The five cases detailed below offer a window into why. Each example represents a multi-state salmonella outbreak linked to chicken or turkey. In each case, government officials were able to trace contaminated poultry back to specific processing plants. But in all five cases, routine testing in the six months before people began falling sick didn’t detect signs of salmonella problems that could lead to outbreaks.

How is that possible?

One explanation can be found in the way inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) oversee poultry.

When it comes to salmonella, the FSIS tests fewer than one bird per day in plants that can process up to hundreds of thousands of birds per day. And even when they do test, inspectors aren’t measuring the amount of the bacteria or the type found. Some poultry products aren’t tested at all.

Take the example of Foster Farms, the largest poultry producer on the West Coast. From March 2013 to July 2014, a salmonella outbreak linked to three of the company’s processing plants sickened 634 people. But testing of whole chickens in each of these plants prior to the outbreak turned up no positive tests for salmonella. That’s according to an analysis by FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Workshop based on USDA data obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In their investigation of the outbreak, officials at the FSIS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned that most of those sickened had eaten chicken sold as parts — breasts, wings or thighs. That discovery highlighted another gap in the nation’s food safety system — chicken parts weren’t subject to salmonella limits. Earlier this year, FSIS proposed limits on chicken parts for the first time.

Other times, inspectors did find salmonella ahead of an outbreak, but the amount they found was allowed under existing federal standards. So even though a company’s product was making people sick, they weren’t in violation of the FSIS limits.

Ultimately, the contamination problems in each of the five cases were found and fixed, but only after consumers were sickened, some severely, from salmonella poisoning.

An FSIS spokesperson said in a statement to FRONTLINE that the agency has been making changes to its testing and inspection system to try to catch more problems.

“Since the very beginning of this Administration, there has been a noticeable shift at USDA toward prevention-based food safety policies. We are continually working to develop tools that will allow us to detect developing problems and fix them before they can cause illnesses,” said the spokesman, Adam Tarr. (Read the full statement below.)

What Inspectors Saw Before the Outbreaks

In each outbreak below, a dot represents a test for salmonella performed by the Food Saftey and Inspection Service.

The government allows some salmonella on poultry — different amounts depending on the product — and even though some samples tested positive for salmonella at these plants, those amounts were within limits allowed by government standards.

Foster Farms: 634 sickened

Before the outbreak: Routine FSIS sampling of whole chickens showed no positive tests for salmonella during the six months before this outbreak.

The aftermath: This outbreak began in March 2013 and officially ended in July 2014. During that time, seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg sickened 634 people in 29 states. Nearly 40 percent of the ill were hospitalized, twice the normal rate for salmonella. The chicken was ultimately traced to three California plants of Foster Farms, the largest poultry producer on the West Coast.


Cargill: 136 sickened, 1 dead

Before the outbreak: Routine sampling of ground turkey showed only eight positives for salmonella out of 61 samples, well within what was then the standard for ground turkey — 49.9 percent positives.

The aftermath: This strain of salmonella Heidelberg found in ground turkey sickened 136 people and killed one between February and November 2011. Approximately 39 percent of those infected ended up in the hospital. In August 2011, the company recalled more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey. Since the outbreak, FSIS has proposed new standards that will reduce the allowable level of salmonella in ground turkey to 13.5 percent.


Foster Farms: 134 sickened

Before the outbreak: FSIS tested whole chickens for salmonella in late 2011 and found no signs of the bacteria, but in the six months leading up to the start of this outbreak in June 2012, the agency didn’t perform any sampling, according to the USDA data.

The aftermath: This outbreak officially ended in May 2013, sickening 134 people in 13 states. More than 30 percent of those who fell ill were hospitalized. Some of the salmonella Heidelberg associated with the outbreak was resistant to one of the key antibiotics used to treat the bacteria. The outbreak was traced to two Foster Farms plants, one in Kelso, Wash. and another in Fresno, Calif. Inspectors had been testing whole chickens, but most of those sickened had eaten meat sold as parts — breasts, thighs or wings.


Jennie-O: 12 sickened

Before the outbreak: Routine sampling of ground turkey came up with only two positives for salmonella out of 28 samples, well within what was then the standard for ground turkey — 49.9 percent positives. Since the outbreak, FSIS has proposed new standards that will reduce the allowable level to 13.5 percent.

The aftermath: The outbreak of ground turkey burgers began in December 2010 and sickened 12 people with salmonella Hadar in 10 states. In April 2011, Jennie-O recalled 54,960 pounds of frozen raw turkey burger products.


Tyson Foods: 9 sickened

Before the outbreak: Normal FSIS sampling showed no salmonella, but a special “exploratory sampling” program geared at mechanically separated chicken — meat that is ground into a paste and used in lunch meats and fast food — did find the bacteria in some tests.At the time, however, there were no standards for the amount of salmonella allowed on those types of products, meaning Tyson wasn’t breaking any rules by selling them. The agency has since proposed new salmonella standards for mechanically separated and ground poultry.

The aftermath: This outbreak began with nine people from a Tennessee correctional facility who were sickened by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg, starting in November 2013. Tyson Foods recalled approximately 33,840 pounds of the chicken in January 2014.


FSIS’s full statement to FRONTLINE:

Since the very beginning of this Administration, there has been a noticeable shift at USDA toward prevention-based food safety policies. We are continually working to develop tools that will allow us to detect developing problems and fix them before they can cause illnesses. If a problem does occur, we attack it aggressively, not hesitating to use innovative approaches to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. We are also continually learning from our experiences and making changes to our policies and practices to prevent problems that we have seen from happening again. Specifically:

FSIS now schedules intensive investigations, known as Food Safety Assessments, which are conducted by specially trained employees, at any plant that has a high number of food safety non-compliances or that fails to meet an Agency-established performance standard. The agency’s central, automated data system has made it possible to detect these developments and to act quickly to address them.

Following the two recalls for ground poultry products in 2011, FSIS conducted investigations at the plants involved and publicly shared its findings from the investigations. FSIS also conducted special investigations at all ground poultry processing facilities and instructed ground poultry plants to update their food safety plans to address the weaknesses identified.

The agency now tests all poultry plants continuously, taking samples every week on a random day so that companies cannot predict when the samples will be taken. Previously, FSIS conducted sample sets for 51 consecutive days, and companies that performed well could have gaps between each set (poor performers were tested more frequently).

The agency is now testing poultry parts in addition to whole carcasses. New performance standards will be implemented this year that are expected to prevent 50,000 illnesses annually. Performance standards have proven to be effective at lowering Salmonella rates on whole carcasses. By developing additional standards, and strengthening existing ones, we believe that outbreaks will be averted.

source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/health-science-technology/trouble-with-chicken/five-salmonella-outbreaks-food-inspectors-didnt-see-coming/

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