Food (safety) fight

by Dr. Richard Raymond, former US undersecretary of agriculture for food safety.

Readers asked for controversy: here it is.

(This article appeared in the end-of-December online newsletter at Although it refers to American experiences and studies, it serves as a good informational piece for food producers anywhere. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)

Last blog I tried a little tongue-in-cheek humor and was roundly criticized. I was asked to keep my blogs controversial for active discussion. Well, here you go.

Five controversial Ag topics I have already repeatedly blogged on are: GMO products, HIMP, antibiotics used in animals raised for food, raw milk, and non-O157:H7 STECs being declared adulterants. I have stayed away from a sixth because I can’t decide which side of the fence to stand on.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the USDA twice to declare certain multi-drug resistant (MDR) strains of Salmonella to be an adulterant, thus susceptible to recalls. On July 31, 2014, the USDA denied the 2011 petition, only to receive a new petition in September 2014, following the Foster Farms linked MDR Salmonella outbreak that sickened over 600 people.

Contamination of whole chicken carcasses with Salmonella has decreased from around 18 percent in 2004 to a low of 3 percent last year, yet human Salmonellosis cases in the United States remain estimated to be 1.2 million per year with 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths per year.

Perhaps that is because the most recent testing of chicken parts by the USDA showed nearly 27 percent of chicken parts, the breasts, thighs and wings we more frequently buy, to be contaminated with Salmonella. One out of four.

But not all Salmonella species are a threat to human health, so that number, while representing contamination, does not truly shed a light on health risk. As an example, the most common species found in the USDA testing was Salmonella Kentucky, not a threat to human health. So the numbers are impressive, but not totally useful.

MDR Salmonella, in and of itself, is not a problem. The problem arises when the resistance is to antibiotics commonly used to treat Salmonellosis such as the fluoroquinolones, Bactrim and ceftriaxone.

How many of those chicken parts testing positive for Salmonella would have MDR Salmonella species that pose a threat to human health, and how many would include fluoroquinolone resistance? We simply do not know. And therefore we have a number used against the industry, but we do not know the significance of the number.

How can one not support the petition when the contamination of parts is so large, and the number of illnesses per year top one million?

The industry opposed the 1994 declaration of E coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant, but they lost and the illness rates have declined dramatically. Would the same result happen if MDR Salmonella was declared an adulterant? Probably not, because we don’t have a system in place to dramatically lower the contamination rate of chicken parts.

Instead, we would see an industry decimated and the price of chicken soar, dramatically limiting the options for protein sources for fiscally challenged American families.

I think I am a pretty good advocate for improving public health, and I think more children die from the result of chronic malnutrition than from foodborne illnesses, but 25 percent of chicken products in the retail stores incubating Salmonella and 1.2 million illnesses per year are hard numbers to chew on and swallow.

Your turn. Go for it!
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