On the surface this story is good news. But read further as I dissect this announcement, the media coverage and wonder what levers were pulled and words tweaked to get there.
Amid Outbreak, Foster Farms Steps Up Food Safety
Foster Farms poultry producers announced Monday that they’ve dramatically lowered levels of salmonella in chicken parts — and invested $75 million to do it — even as the firm battles a food poisoning outbreak that has sickened nearly 600 people in more than a year.
Most recent 10-week data shared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that salmonella levels in the firm’s chicken parts had dropped to 2 percent — far below the industry benchmark of 25 percent, Foster Farms officials said.
The announcement came at a Modesto, California, gathering aimed at marking the family-owned firm’s 75th anniversary. Foster Farms was lauded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dr. David Acheson, former chief medical officer of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration.
‘Certainly there was a problem,’ said Acheson, who is now serving as a paid member of the Foster Farms Food Safety Advisory Board. ‘They are definitely addressing the problem going forward.’
Why does this make me sick? Three reasons:
1) This phrase is cleverly misleading: “salmonella levels in the firm’s chicken parts had dropped to 2 percent — far below the industry benchmark of 25 percent.”
This “industry benchmark” is suggested by the poultry industry saying, “This is our average. Some better, some worse but on average one out of four packages of chicken parts is contaminated.” The phrase that really means something, because it can have regulatory teeth, is performance standard. However, right now there is no USDA performance standard for chicken parts.
The performance standard the USDA has is only for whole chickens and it is 7.5 percent. (BTW, getting the USDA FSIS to admit this was like pulling teeth.) Here is the note from them:
In 1996, FSIS set the first performance standards for young chickens (broilers). At that time, the national average for Salmonella on young chickens (broilers) was 20%. Today, the national average of Salmonella on young chickens (broilers) is 7.5%. The performance standard for young chickens (broilers) is not the same for chicken parts. FSIS recently completed the first baseline survey of chicken parts and determined the national average of Salmonella on this product type was 24%. FSIS will use the information gathered in the baseline survey to develop a performance standard for chicken parts.
What this means is that until the performance standard for chicken parts is set and violated, often over a few months, there will not be a suggestion for a recall. With whole chickens when you go over 7.5% you are in category 3 danger zone and get extra monitoring.