PBS Frontline documentary finds holes in Salmonella regulations for poultry, but wants to double down with more government authority.

If you didn’t watch the PBS Frontline episode, The Trouble with Chicken, I would encourage you to do so online. The “documentary” looks at three major meat- and poultry-related food safety outbreaks and compares and contrasts the actions and reactions of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the meat and poultry companies. The outbreaks highlighted were the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak associated with ground beef patties served at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993, Salmonella Heidelberg in Cargill Ground Turkey in 2011, and the Foster Farms Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak in 2013.

As usually happens, the narrative gets steered to the “success” of declaring E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant and asks why a similar approach has not been taken with Salmonella in poultry. No one who appears on this “documentary” explains that this is a silly comparison, because in the case of E. coli 0157:H7 a single serovar of a bacteria species is named as an adulterant and a zero tolerance policy in finished products is established. In contrast, saying there should be zero tolerance for Salmonella in poultry would be the same as saying that all beef products should be completely free of all bacteria of the genus Escherichia. The E. coli 0157:H7 policy targets a specific known pathogen; the equivalent step in poultry would be to set zero tolerance for one pathogenic serovar of Salmonella, not the entire genus.

The Frontline episode points out the folly of the USDA performance standards for Salmonella being based on the entire genus, not on pathogenic strains. The generic Salmonella performance standards have been in place for almost 20 years, and it seems obvious that they aren’t working. Changing the standards to address known pathogenic strains of Salmonella and looking at total load, not just presence or absence could give better public health outcomes.

Regardless of what steps USDA FSIS decides to take in the future regarding Salmonella regulations for poultry, poultry producers need to focus on controlling pathogens first and foremost, and regulatory compliance should be a byproduct of this effort. Focusing on regulatory compliance first is what leads to situations where poultry complexes are in compliance but their products can still sicken consumers. The incidence rate of generic Salmonella on poultry carcasses or parts doesn’t really tell you very much. What matters is what Salmonella serovars are on the products and in what quantity.

I found it interesting that the FDA’s approach to regulating Salmonella enteritidis in shell eggs, where a single species of Salmonella is being addressed, wasn’t contrasted to USDA FSIS’s Salmonella approach.  Salmonella Heidelberg is also a food safety concern for shell eggs, so controlling for just one serovar probably isn’t the answer for either poultry egg or meat bird producers, but saying you need to eliminate entire genus Salmonella isn’t the answer either.