Food & Agriculture

New CDC Report Highlights Role of Chicken in Foodborne Illness

Fowl Contribution Underscores Dangers of Deregulation

Washington D.C. — A new analysis of foodborne illness outbreak data from researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fingers chicken as the country’s most dangerous food. The findings point to the need for stronger protections against Salmonella and other pathogen contamination in chicken, both on the farm, and in the slaughterhouse, where industry is now pushing to eliminate line speeds and other food safety controls.

The CDC researchers analyzed reports of 5,760 outbreaks that resulted in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations, and 145 deaths between 2009 and 2015. Only 1,281 of the reported outbreaks were traced back to a single food category. Of those, chicken was responsible for 123, or 10%, of the outbreaks, and 3,114, or 12%, of resulting illnesses, making it the food category responsible for the most outbreak-associated illnesses.

“This CDC report shows that government inspectors and industry need to do more to protect consumers from unsafe chicken.” said the Director of CFA’s Food Policy Institute, Thomas Gremillion. “Rather than focusing on schemes to boost industry profits—such as eliminating slaughterhouse line speed limits—we should be talking about why the U.S. lags so far behind other countries on issues like addressing Salmonella contamination in poultry, and what can be done to avoid some of these illnesses and the havoc they wreak on families.”

Rates of salmonellosis in particular have remained stubbornly high in the United States in recent years. During the same time period, many European countries, including Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, have reported significant progress in combating the disease. These divergent public health experiences reflect different regulatory approaches.

In the United States, performance standards for chicken parts allow up to 15.4%, or 8 out of 52 samples, to test positive for Salmonella, and plants that fail to meet the standards may nevertheless continue operating with few significant consequences. For example, nearly all (10 of 11) of the plants run by Sanderson Farms, the country’s third largest chicken company, are currently in violation of Salmonella performance standards. By contrast, many European Union countries have taken stricter, sometimes “zero tolerance” approaches to Salmonella in chicken, seeking to eliminate it on poultry farms before contamination becomes widespread.  Researchers have attributed significant reductions in salmonellosis cases in Europe to those efforts.

“The U.S. poultry industry should be leading the world on food safety, not making excuses. There is no reason that U.S. companies should not be undertaking the same sorts of controls – surveillance, biosecurity, vaccination – that have been a success in Europe,” said Gremillion. “Unfortunately, USDA regulators are not doing their part to create a level playing field for producers that want to do right by their customers.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010