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USDA Sued Over Failure to Address High Rates of Fecal Bacteria on Chicken

While there are many environmental and human health hazards associated with modern food production, perhaps one of the most pressing concerns for any given individual is the ever-rising risk of food poisoning. 

According to preliminary data from the CDC, there were 25,606 foodborne infections, 5,893 hospitalizations and 120 deaths from food poisoning in 2018.1 In 2017, there were 24,484 infections, 5,677 hospitalization and 122 deaths.2

For further comparison, between the years of 2009 and 2015 — a span of six years — there were 5,760 reported foodborne outbreaks resulting in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths.3

According to the most recent report,4 the incidence of infection per 100,000 Americans was highest for Camylobacter, which was responsible for 19.5% of all cases — a 12% increase from 2015-2017 — followed by:

Salmonella 18.3% — a 9% increase from 2015-2017

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC) 5.9% — an increase of 26% from 2015-2017

Shigella 4.9%

Vibrio 1.1% — an increase of 109% from 2015-2017

Yersinia 0.9% — an increase of 58% from 2015-2017

Cyclospora 0.7% — a 399% increase from 2015-2017

Listeria 0.3%

Chicken Is a Primary Source of Many Cases of Food-Borne Illnesses

While produce has become a significant source of food poisoning — two multistate outbreaks of STEC in 2018 were traced back to contaminated romaine lettuce,5 for example — raw chicken remains a primary concern. As noted in the CDC report:6

“Campylobacter has been the most commonly identified infection … since 2013. It causes diarrhea, sometimes bloody, and 18% of persons are hospitalized. A rare outcome of Campylobacter infection is Guillain-Barré syndrome, a type of autoimmune-mediated paralysis. 

Poultry is a major source of Campylobacter. In August 2018, FSIS [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service] began using a new testing method; in a study of that method, Campylobacter was isolated from 18% of chicken carcasses and 16% of chicken parts sampled … 

The incidence of infections with Enteritidis, the most common Salmonella serotype, has not declined in over 10 years. Enteritidis is adapted to live in poultry, and eggs are an important source of infection. 

By 2012, FDA had implemented the Egg Safety Rule, which requires preventive measures during the production of eggs in poultry houses and requires subsequent refrigeration during storage and transportation, for all farms with ≥3,000 hens. 

In 2018, a multistate outbreak of Enteritidis infections was traced to eggs from a farm that had not implemented the required egg safety measures after its size reached ≥3,000 hens. 

Chicken meat is also an important source of Enteritidis infections. In December 2018, FSIS reported that 22% of establishments that produce chicken parts failed to meet the Salmonella performance standard … ”

Factory Farmed Chicken Is Notoriously ‘Dirty’

Over the years, food testing has shown that factory farmed chickens (i.e., chickens raised in concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs) are particularly prone to contamination with dangerous pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteriathat make the illness all the more difficult to treat. For example:

• Consumer Reports testing in 2007 found 80% of whole chicken broilers harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter,7 two of the leading causes of foodborne illness. Retesting in 2010 revealed a modest improvement, with two-thirds being contaminated with these disease-causing bacteria. 

Three years later, in 2013, Consumer Reports8 found potentially harmful bacteria on 97% of the chicken breasts tested, and half of them had at least one type of bacteria that was resistant to three or more antibiotics. 

• A 2011 study conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found 48% of the 120 chicken products tested (obtained from 15 grocery chains in 10 U.S. cities) were contaminated with E. coli, commonly found in feces.9,10 The following year, repeat testing revealed the exact same result: 48% of chicken products again tested positive for fecal bacteria (E. coli).11

• An Environmental Working Group analysis12,13 of food testing done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015 found 36% of chicken breasts, legs, thighs and wings were contaminated with drug-resistant enterococcus faecalis, 71% of which were resistant to tetracyclines.

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