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Top poultry processors faulted for high Salmonella rates

By Ahmed ElAmin , 06-Jul-2006

A consumer advocacy group has released the names of poultry processors whose plants failed federal standards for Salmonella, faulting the industry and regulators for not doing enough to reduce the foodborne pathogen.

The processors with failing grades include the largest operations in the country. They are Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Goldkist, Perdue Farms, Wayne Farms, and Foster Farms.

Food & Water Watch says the information it obtained from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows tougher food safety legislation and testing is needed for the poultry sector.

Such consumer-driven moves could potentially cost processors more money and hurt their branded products.

The group said yesterday its analysis of the USDA's Salmonella tests between 1998 and 2005 provides direct evidence of the danger posed by the regulator's changes to the program that reduces the frequency of testing at some plants.

The advocacy group obtained the names of the plants through the US Freedom of Information Act. To date, USDA has never publicly released information on which plants failed to meet Salmonella standards. The regulator has said in the past that it would consider doing so as a way of pushing the industry to take better precautions against Salmonella.

The testing results are from the USDA's routine sampling program for Salmonella. The report lists 106 broiler chicken plants in 27 states and Puerto Rico that failed at least one

Salmonella test during the seven year period. They are grouped by company name so consumers can consult it as they shop, Food & Water Watch stated in a press release.

The USDA announced last week that it would delay testing at plants that met Salmonella standards in the past and focus on ones that continually had positive tests.

"Had this new policy been in effect from 1998 through 2005, up to 22 of the 106 plants would not have been tested and found to be in violation," Food & Water Watch stated.

The group is calling on the USDA to formally ask federal lawmakers to pass legislation making microbial testing performance standards enforceable. The legislation would also require the agency to publish the results of Salmonella testing for every plant on its Internet site.

Food & Water Watch also called on the USDA to abandon a proposal to reduce the frequency of testing at plants that had passed two previous testing periods.

In 1996, the federal government instituted major changes in the meat inspection system by using international standards of food safety, known as the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system.

Under HACCP, meat plants are responsible for determining where hazards are most likely to occur in their system and for controlling potential food safety problems. As part of the HACCP system, the government launched its Salmonella testing program.

Under the system government inspectors have been shifted to an auditing role, and have less authority to require corrective action when they see a problem, the advocacy group claimed.

During a testing period, the USDA is supposed to take samples during 51 consecutive days of broiler chicken production. If a plant has more than 12 samples test positive for Salmonella during that period, they fail to meet the standard.

Of the largest seven poultry processors in the US only Sanderson Farms had a contamination rate below the 24 per cent testing standard set by the USDA. None of the company's six broiler-producing plants failed any test periods during 1998 to 2005. The average contamination rate of the passing test periods was 6.3 per cent.

Meanwhile Tyson Foods, had 10 of its 36 broiler-producing plants, or 27.8 per cent, fail during at least one test period for Salmonella. A total of 5.1 per cent of the company's test periods resulted in failure. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 33 per cent, according to the Food & Water Watch data for 1998 to 2005.

At Pilgrim's Pride, seven of the company's 22 plants, or 31.8 per cent, failed at least one test period. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 35 per cent.

Goldkist had five of its 11 plants, or 45.5 per cent, fail at least one test period. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 40.9 per cent.

Perdue Farms had five of its 10 plants failed at least one test period. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 36 per cent.

Wayne Farms had five of its seven plants fail at least one test period. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 32 per cent.

Two of Foster Farms four plants failed at least one test period. The average contamination rate of failing test periods was 32 per cent.

"It should not be left to non-profit groups to let consumers know which companies failed to meet government food safety standards," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "If USDA is going to live up to its rhetoric, they need to routinely test all plants and disclose the results."

Data released by the USDA on Salmonella testing for the first quarter 2006 shows the pathogen's average rate in broiler chicken carcase samples fell to 12 per cent, compared to 14.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2005.

The USDA increased the number of samples it tested for both ground beef and chicken in the first quarter compared to the previous quarter. Sampling for all other categories decreased over the same period.

Rates for hog carcasses fell to 3.8 per cent from 4.6 per cent over the same periods. Salmonella in cow and bull carcasses fell to 0.3 per cent from 1.2 per cent. No Salmonella was detected in steer and heifer samples, compared to 0.2 per cent rate found in the fourth quarter 2004.

The rate of salmonella rose in ground beef to 1.3 per cent from 1.1 per cent. In ground chicken the rate fell to 50 per cent from 62.5 per cent.

Meanwhile salmonella rates in ground turkey fell to 21.9 per cent from 29.7 per cent. Earlier this year the FSIS released figures showing that

Samples in broilers, ground chicken and ground turkey testing positive for salmonella at US slaughter and processing plants have surged since 2002, according to statistics released earlier this year by the USDA.

Broilers had the highest rates of salmonella, with 16.3 per cent of samples testing positive in 2005, up from 11.5 per cent in 2002. The highest level was reached in 1998, when salmonella was found in 20 per cent of the broilers sampled.

The USDA plans to concentrate its testing at plants with higher levels of Salmonella. The unit will also make changes to the reporting and use of the FSIS' Salmonella verification test results.

The effort will be modelled on the successful FSIS program to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef. The FSIS E. coli O157:H7 program led to a 40 per cent reduction in human illnesses associated with the pathogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Certain serotypes of Salmonella, which are known to cause human illness, are commonly found in raw meat and poultry. Other food sources, such as produce and eggs, are also known to cause salmonellosis.

The USDA said it will also begin quarterly posting on its Web site of the nationwide aggregate results of all sample results to give consumers more complete information about salmonella trends.

The bacteria Salmonella is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the US, according to figures from the USDA. About a million cases of salmonellosis are reported annually, with about 63 per cent of those attributed to meat and poultry consumption.

Of these cases, about 9,000 of the victims are hospitalized and about 250 die.The annual cost of illnesses and premature death from Salmonella is estimated to be around $1.5bn.