Consumer groups: Chicken still a high health risk

Americans eat more chicken than any other meat. Yet when it comes to food safety, poultry is fraught with risks that consumer groups say aren’t being fully addressed by producers and federal inspectors.

That’s the view of two reports released Thursday. The first, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examines two recent salmonella outbreaks linked to Foster Farms chicken and concludes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) lacks the authority to properly protect the public.

The second, released by Consumer Reports magazine, tested more than 300 store-bought chicken breasts and found bacteria lurking in almost every one.

At the core of both findings are calls to strengthen government oversight in the $70-billion poultry industry. Doing so would help reduce incidents of food-borne illness, which sickens 48 million people and kills 3,000 in the U.S every year.

“Making chicken safer to eat will require a revamping of the way that it’s raised and processed,” said Consumer Reports.

Coincidentally, the two studies arrive the same month the federal government outlined major new policies to tackle salmonella in poultry and address the over-use of antibiotics in raising meat.

On Dec. 5, the USDA said it would implement more stringent testing and sampling for salmonella in chicken plants and develop the first ever national standards for acceptable levels of salmonella contamination on cut chicken parts (currently, standards exist only for whole chickens).

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration moved to phase out many of the antibiotics administered to animals used as food to promote faster growth – a practice blamed for increasing antibiotics resistance in people.

Federal officials say the measures address some of the concerns raised by the reports released Thursday.

“The Consumer Union and Pew reports confirm the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent food-borne illness,” a Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman said.

But Pew argues poultry oversight is fundamentally flawed because inspectors lack broad powers to shut down problem processors like they can for other serious pathogens such as E. coli 0157:57.

That’s because salmonella is considered naturally occurring and nearly impossible to eradicate on poultry farms. Still, consumer groups say industry and government can do better by allowing shutdowns and recalls when the source of an outbreak is known.

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