It's Legal to Sell Raw Chicken With Salmonella Bacteria, USDA Wants to Change Its Approach

The United States Department of Agriculture is weighing changes to how it controls salmonella in poultry plants as it seeks to diminish the number of illnesses that arise from the bacteria each year, the Associated Press reported.

The USDA on Tuesday announced several actions it plans to take to meet that objective.

Of the 1.35 million salmonella infections in the U.S. each year, poultry is linked to approximately 23 percent of those infections, which ultimately cause about 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths annually, AP reported. While the USDA said the poultry industry has been able to reduce the levels of salmonella contamination in poultry plants in recent years, the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths have seen little change.

The agency plans to begin preliminary projects that adjust how to test for salmonella in plants and motivate those in the industry to minimize how much of the bacteria is on chickens before they even enter plants. The USDA also plans to hold meetings with industry officials and other relevant groups to reduce the risk of becoming ill from salmonella, according to AP.

"This is deeper, more targeted and more system-based approach than in the past," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The hope is that we can significantly reduce the risk of these serious cases, and it's certainly worth the effort."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

USDA Rethinking Salmonella Control
Federal health officials are rethinking their approach to controlling salmonella in poultry plants in the hope of reducing the number of illnesses linked to the bacteria each year. Above, workers process chickens at a poultry plant in Fremont, Nebraska, on December 12, 2019. Nati Harnik/AP Photo

Currently, the USDA tests for the presence of salmonella on poultry at processing plants. One of the proposed pilot projects would add tests for the quantity of bacteria present and tests for the specific strains of salmonella that cause the most illnesses.

The agency also wants to encourage farmers to take a combination of steps proven to reduce bacteria in their chickens, including using more vaccinations, adding probiotics to feed and doing more to ensure that the birds' bedding, food and water remain clean.

The National Chicken Council trade group has said the industry has already invested millions of dollars in efforts to reduce salmonella contamination, including spraying germ-killing solutions on raw chicken during processing, improving sanitation and using more vaccines. Spokesman Tom Super said many chicken farmers are already taking steps recommended by the USDA.

"We pledge to continue to do our part—the industry will remain committed to investing significant resources—at the hatchery, feed mill, farm and plant—to further enhance the safety profile of chicken products. But there is no law, regulation or silver bullet that will make raw chicken a 100 percent sterile product," said Ashley Peterson, the trade group's senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.

The USDA said 89 percent of the nation's poultry processing plants are now meeting the agency's performance standard for limiting salmonella in chicken parts. That is up from three years ago when only 71 percent of the plants met the standard.

National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger said the industry already shares ideas about the best ways to control salmonella so the companies look forward to participating in the USDA roundtables.

"Because there are no simple solutions, improving food safety requires the type of collaborative approach USDA is advocating," Brandenberger said.

Zach Corrigan of Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group that supports stricter food safety regulations, said it sounds like the USDA's new efforts are "a move in the right direction," but he still hopes the agency will do more to control salmonella by declaring that meat found to have the bacteria can't be sold to consumers.

Currently, it is legal to sell raw chicken with salmonella bacteria on it, which is why health officials stress the need for safe handling of raw poultry, including thoroughly cooking the meat to kill potential germs. They also warn that people should not rinse raw chicken, which can spray bacteria everywhere.

Brian Ronholm, a former USDA under secretary for food safety who now oversees food policy for Consumer Reports, praised the federal agency's comprehensive approach to reducing salmonella illnesses.

"Some consumers have told us they feel like they have to handle chicken like it's toxic waste, and that's not how anyone wants to cook in the kitchen. We're hopeful that these steps laid out by USDA will result in more consumer confidence about the safety of the poultry products they bring into their homes," Ronholm said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to begin preliminary projects that adjust how salmonella is tested for in plants and motivate those in the industry to minimize how much of the bacteria is on chickens before they even enter plants. Above, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks about rising food prices at a press briefing at the White House on September 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images