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Denmark takes its Salmonella seriously – even in raw poultry.

Since the beginning of this year, Denmark has recorded seven recalls of raw poultry products due to Salmonella contamination. The recalled chicken and turkey products originated in Brazil (1 recall), Denmark (1 recall), Hungary (3 recalls), Germany (1 recall), and Poland (1 recall).

There were NO Salmonella outbreaks associated with or triggering any of these recalls. Just the detection of Salmonella in a sample of the raw poultry meat. And, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, only one of the recalled items was domestic – raw turkey products that were suspected of being contaminated with Salmonella. Not confirmed. Merely suspected.

Things are different in the USA. USDA accepts – indeed, expects – to find Salmonella in a significant fraction of raw poultry samples. In the fourth quarter of 2010, 4.2% of turkeys, 9.5% of broiler chickens, 9% of raw ground turkey samples and nearly 23% of raw ground chicken samples analyzed under USDA’s HACCP Verification Testing Program were positive for Salmonella.

It’s clear that USDA’s Salmonella policy is not working. CDC has identified two outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella illnesses this year – Salmonella Hadar associated with Jennie-O turkey burgers and Salmonella Heidelberg believed to be linked to ground turkey – that are associated with raw turkey meat. In 2010, an outbreak of Salmonella Chester illnesses was traced to contaminated Marie Callender frozen entrées. And in 2007, ConAgra (Banquet Foods) frozen pot pies were responsible for more than 270 illnesses and at least 65 hospitalizations.

We cannot even rely on USDA’s reported incidence levels of Salmonella in broiler and turkey carcasses, because the agency’s sampling method is badly flawed. One might almost conclude that the procedure was designed to underreport the true incidence of Salmonella in our raw poultry.

This is how USDA samples poultry carcasses for Salmonella testing (from the FSIS Laboratory Guidebook):

4.5.6 Whole Bird Rinses

Due to differences between sample types/sizes (e.g. chicken vs. turkey carcasses), follow instructions given in the specific program protocol.

a. For chicken carcasses, aseptically drain excess fluid from the carcass and transfer the carcass to a sterile Stomacher 3500 bag, or equivalent.

b. Pour 400 ml (or other volume specified in program protocol) of BPW into the cavity of the carcass contained in the bag.

c. Rinse the bird inside and out with a rocking motion for one minute (ca. 35 RPM). This is done by grasping the broiler carcass in the bag with one hand and the closed top of the bag with the other. Rock with a reciprocal motion in about an 18-24 inch arc, assuring that all surfaces (interior and exterior of the carcass) are rinsed.

d. Transfer the sample rinse fluid to a sterile container.

e. Use 30 ± 0.6 ml of the sample rinse fluid obtained above for Salmonella analysis. Add 30 ± 0.6 ml of sterile BPW and mix well.

f. Incubate at 35 ± 2C for 20-24 h.

g. Proceed to Section 4.6 to continue the cultural analysis or refer to MLG 4C for use of the BAX® PCR Assay.

Here are my problems with USDA’s method:

  • The first step in the procedure is to throw away excess fluid from the carcass – the very material that is most likely to contain Salmonella.
  • The carcass is rinsed with 400 ml (about 13.5 fluid ounces) of liquid – no problem there, if all of the liquid was used in the test. But USDA only uses 30 ml – less than 10% – of the rinse liquid for the Salmonella test.

In essence, USDA has dumbed down its Salmonella test, reducing the sensitivity of the test to less than 10% of what it should be – and easily could be.

USDA is fooling itself if the agency truly believes that its Salmonella data are valid. And it is misleading the US consumer.

The technology is available to address the problem of Salmonella in poultry. Just ask Denmark, or any of the Scandinavian countries.

The technology is available to test for Salmonella in poultry effectively. Just ask any non-USDA food microbiology lab.

It’s time to stop messing around with this food safety time bomb.

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