Christine Alvarado, Ph.D, a seasoned researcher with the Department of Poultry Science at Texas A&M University, spoke to FoodProductionDaily about the true state of the nation’s poultry industry, the progress being made, and areas that could stand improvement.
FPD: It may seem to the general consumer population that the chicken supply is more at risk than previously; is this the case?
Christine Alvarado: The influence of social media has increased the ability for people to rapidly obtain information. So, to the general consumer, it probably does seem that there are more outbreaks from chicken compared to a few years ago.
However, there are some statistics from USDA-FSIS that really show the true state of food safety of the chicken supply.
A few years ago, USDA-FSIS established a Salmonella performance standard (required target) for young chicken carcasses of 20% and recently decreased it to 7.5% because the chicken industry had established interventions to improve the safety of the chicken supply to consumers. According to an FSIS report for late 2013, the actual percentage positive was 2.6% which is significantly less than the performance standard indicating that the industry really is doing a great job at controlling risks for food borne illness to consumers.
In addition, the prevalence of Salmonella in ground chicken has been decreased by 50%. So, the reason we are more likely to hear about a Salmonella outbreak from chicken is not that the food has become less safe, but more likely due to the effect of social media and the ability of news to spread at a rapid rate.
What are some of the most challenging/vulnerable areas for poultry producers, in terms of contamination?
Salmonella is a live bacteria that is found in many areas around us and can be found in the intestines of animals. Therefore, the approach to food safety is a comprehensive approach. Food safety really begins with a live bird, specifically the breeders which lay the eggs that become the meat birds we eat.
The industry uses what we term as a multi-hurdle approach to ensure the safety of chicken meat. What this means is that the industry has conducted a large number of sampling and testing at various stages from the broiler breeder through packaging of the product for consumers and they have determined the most significant areas of possible Salmonella contamination.
Once these areas of importance are identified then interventions can be used to ensure that the risk of Salmonella is minimized. We have several interventions that are available to the industry including vaccinations, feeding probiotics to birds which enhance good bacteria in the intestine and do not allow Salmonella to grow, decreasing the pH of the drinking water prior to the birds going to slaughter, and then slaughter interventions to ensure that processing of the bird is conducted in a sanitary manner.
It is very difficult to completely rid of Salmonella in a raw product, but with this multi-hurdle approach and cooking to an internal temperature of 165 deg F, the food is safe to eat and will not make anyone sick. Honestly, the most challenging areas for producers are when the product leaves their back dock and is shipped to the consumers.
Most food-borne illnesses are caused by cross-contamination and improper handling of products by either consumers or untrained retail and restaurant employees. But once it leaves the dock of the plant, it is no longer in their control and no longer part of a multi-hurdle approach by the producer and processor.
What are some of the top-priority actions a poultry producer should take to help prevent incidents and outbreaks?
A good food safety program (including Cleaning and Sanitation Programs, Standard Operating Procedures, and Good Manufacturing Programs which are all prerequisite programs and the foundation to HACCP) are important for poultry processors and producers. All of these systems include good recordkeeping and validation and verifications steps to ensure the processor and producer are doing what they say they are doing and that what they are doing is actually controlling Salmonella.
In addition, a good recall management plan is important to ensure product can be recalled in a timely manner even before an illness or outbreak can occur. Fortunately, poultry processors in the USA have all of these in place and have checks and balances via audit systems to ensure they are following these actions to ensure safety of food supply.
What areas could stand improvement (sanitation technology, consumer education, etc.)?
Our poultry industry is very highly regulated and there are many checks and balances in place to ensure safety. If these regulations are not followed or not met then the facility may lose the ability to sell their product so there is a high incentive to ensure and document safety practices.
I honestly believe that consumer education on food safety has decrease significantly in the last decade or so. The reason I am saying this is that we no longer teach chicken (K-12) food safety in courses such as home economics, consumer sciences or career and lifestyles.
The focus has shifted from how to properly prepare food to other career development items. I truly believe that most consumers do not understand the concept of cross contamination, cooking time and temperature and cleaning and sanitation procedures to prevent a food-borne illness.
Could you please share any of the poultry science projects you've been working on? Are there any promising developments emerging (particularly regarding safety of the chicken supply)?
We have been working on several new technologies that can be hopefully used soon in the industry. This goes beyond the testing of antimicrobials products for use in the industry which we do very often to see if new products can be used to decrease Salmonella.
We at Texas A&M have been working on sanitation practices for the hatching eggs to prevent the spread of Salmonella in live production. In addition, our extension faculty have been working with producers to use winrowing technology to clean chicken houses in between flocks to ensure a clean environment for the next flock.
Also, we reach out to consumers to teach food safety every opportunity we have.