If the salmonella contamination at Foster Farms tells consumers anything, it's that we're all pretty much on our own when it comes to food safety. California's largest chicken producer, still in crisis mode after more than 300 people got sick from eating its product, has refused to recall anything because as the company sees it, there's no real safety issue. That is, assuming raw chicken is handled properly, on a separate cutting board and away from other food, and it's cooked to at least 165 degrees. That might not seem like a big deal for careful home cooks, but what if I'm eating chicken that was prepared by someone else who might not be so careful? As mentioned in this week's Business Update on KPCC, Foster Farms is taking the same position as a Texas meat processor that successfully sued the government for trying to shut down its operation in the 1990s. The company argued that salmonella is naturally occurring, and therefore, not an adulterant subject to government regulation. And the courts agreed.
Mark Lacter: You know, Steve, we often have an out of sight, out of mind attitude when it comes to food safety, and - as we're seeing with this episode - the government has a way of enabling that attitude. What stands out, first of all, is that people started getting sick from salmonella-contaminated chicken back in March, and yet, it wasn't until the past few weeks that news stories began appearing about the seriousness of the problems.
Steve Julian: At last check, more than 300 people have been infected, with most of them in California...
Lacter: Right, and Foster Farms, which is based in Merced County, controls two-thirds of the poultry market along the West Coast. No fatalities so far, but many of the people who became sick had to be hospitalized - and that leads to still more concerns that the salmonella strains were resistant to antibiotics. Now, why it took this long for consumers to be made aware that there was a problem tells you something about the way the federal government regulates poultry plants. It was only last Friday, after the company had seen a 25 percent drop in sales, when the president of Foster Farms decided to go public. He said he was embarrassed by the outbreak, and promised to change the company's processing facilities so that salmonella can be better identified.
Julian: Where was the US government in this?
Lacter: Apparently, the Department of Agriculture only requires testing for levels of salmonella at the time of slaughter - not later on, after the poultry is cut into parts. Foster Farms now says it will do retesting at that later stage. What's also interesting is that Foster Farms was not asked to recall any of its products because the chicken is considered safe as long as it's handled properly and then cooked to the right temperature, which is at least 165 degrees. That's why some supermarkets have kept carrying the brand.
Wait, it gets better. The poultry industry, along with officials from the Agriculture Department, have been pushing a pilot program that would allow plants to speed up processing lines by as much as 25 percent and replace government inspectors with employees from the poultry companies themselves. The idea is to establish safeguards that can better identify safety problems before they get out of hand. But this is pretty controversial stuff, especially after the release of a government report that questions the program's effectiveness. And, not surprisingly, advocacy groups representing poultry workers say that processing lines need to be slowed down, not speeded up. So you have this ongoing back and forth involving industry, government, consumer groups, and labor organizations on what's the safest, most cost-effective way of running these plants, and the truth is there are many opinions. From NYT food columnist Mark Bittman:
For decades, we've been told how to handle chicken. But I can tell you that despite my best efforts to keep raw chicken and its drippings quarantined, I'm not confident that these efforts suffice. What if chicken blood gets on my lettuce in a shopping bag? What if someone else's chicken contaminates my apples on a supermarket conveyor belt? What if my wife or a guest grabs a cutting board or a knife before it's been washed? These are not paranoid questions. What if -- as happened to a Florida client of Bill Marler's, the Seattle-based food safety attorney -- I go to a barbecue, and I eat a piece of chicken, and I get sick? And I don't respond to antibiotics? And I wind up in the hospital with sepsis (blood poisoning) and stop breathing, and maybe have a long-term brain injury because of lack of oxygen? "All for going to a neighbor's barbecue," says Marler. Who's at fault here? The victim, for eating chicken cooked by a neighbor? The neighbor, for not being trained in public safety? Or the producer, who won't slow down processing to guarantee safety? Or the regulator, who is "responsible for ensuring" safety?
Actually, I think those are paranoid questions. But that doesn't mean government and industry get a free pass. Clearly, the system is not running as well as it could.