"We should not have to handle chicken as if it were a loaded gun"

chicken food safety photo
CC BY 2.0 USDAgov

Last week, when the AP reported on how Argentine farmers were being poisoned by chemical fertilizers from Monsanto, Monsanto's response was essentially that the farmers were to blame for misusing the chemicals.

Following the recent spate of people hospitalized due to salmonella on chicken, Mark Bittman shines a light on the similarly disconcerting shifting of blame regarding the safety of chicken.

We should not have to handle chicken as if it were a loaded gun, nor should we be blamed when contaminated chicken makes us sick

U.S.D.A. does not stand alone. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), knowing that manufacturers grow animals under conditions virtually guaranteed to breed disease, allows them to attempt to ward off disease by feeding them antibiotics from birth until death. (This despite the stated intention of the agency to change that, and a court order requiring it to.) This rampant drug use has led to new strains of bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. And the situation is getting worse.

Believe it or not, the presence of salmonella on chicken is both common and acceptable. (About a quarter of all chicken parts are contaminated, a fact of which F.S.I.S. is fully aware and which it is evaluating.) From the Centers for Disease Control: “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have salmonella bacteria. C.D.C. and U.S.D.A.-F.S.I.S. recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Right. But if salmonella was ever easily killed by careful handling and cooking, perhaps that is no longer the case; perhaps it’s more virulent and heartier, and it certainly now defies some antibiotics.

I was especially moved by one particular line in Bittman's post: "165 degrees Fahrenheit isn't a magic number."

Like everyone, I have always thought that cooking chicken to that temperature would mean it was safe to eat, but these recent outbreaks have suggested that some strains of salmonella could theoretically survive in higher temps, which is why Costco cooks their chicken to 185 degrees. And they still ended up with contaminated chicken, even after cooking.

Just as we're seeing the overuse of antibiotics in medicine and factory farming has created new super bugs that are resistant to our existing drugs, are we now seeing super salmonella? It's possible.

Super salmonella or not, there's a lot to improve upon for our food system to be considered safe and sustainable.

Bittman rightly says that the real solution is not on the consumer end, but requires reforming the production system. He suggests a couple easy solutions:

1. The F.D.A. must disallow the use of prophylactic antibiotics in animal production. It’s almost as simple as that.

2. The U.S.D.A. must consider salmonella that’s been linked to illness an “adulterant” (as it does strains of E. coli), which would mean that its very presence on foods would be sufficient to take them off the market. Again, it’s almost as simple as that. (Sweden produces chicken with zero levels of salmonella. Are they that much smarter than us?)

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