Americans who want to buy the safest chicken and turkey have had little to go on beyond brand names and labels.
Nearly 900 people submitted details about poultry packages they found in grocery stores across the country, including the P-numbers, which are typically printed on the packaging or price tag and identify where the meat was processed. Submissions covering all 50 states and Washington, D.C., showed that your organic chicken from Whole Foods might be processed in the same facility that processes conventional chicken sold at a Kroger. Sometimes, poultry with the same label comes from different plants with very different levels of salmonella contamination.
At the end of the day, there’s no label or certification that guarantees you’re getting poultry that would have only a less-risky strain of salmonella or that comes from a plant with a low salmonella rate.
The majority of chicken in the U.S. is processed by five companies: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride (JBS), Sanderson Farms, Mountaire Farms and Perdue Farms. Similarly, there are three main processors of turkey, Butterball, Jennie-O and Cargill. These large processors typically control every part of production, from hatching to slaughter to packaging, but the supply chain is almost entirely opaque to consumers.
Poultry products from the same plant weren’t necessarily raised with the same practices or on the same farms. Birds sold with specialty labels like organic, for example, are raised and processed separately from conventional birds, and equipment is sanitized between shifts.
Chicken parts from a Foster Farms plant in Fresno, California, appeared at stores up and down the West Coast and as far east as Wyoming and New Mexico. Chicken parts processed at the plant were found by federal regulators to carry a high-risk salmonella, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is more likely to make people sick. While the presence of salmonella doesn’t necessarily lead to illness — whether you get sick depends on the type and amount of salmonella in your food, the way it’s handled and cooked, and how your immune system responds — the bacteria hospitalizes and kills more people in the U.S. than any other foodborne pathogen. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t currently differentiate between high- and low-risk salmonella when monitoring processing plants, and it doesn’t prevent raw poultry contaminated with salmonella from being sold.
The chief operating officer of Lincoln Premium Poultry, whose plant had high-risk salmonella on 13.6% of its samples, said that the company and the USDA “have recognized that our business and the farmers who supply it have opportunities for improvement while we continue to operate, and Lincoln Premium Poultry has, with the aid of outside industry experts, been enhancing its processes accordingly.”
Under federal organic standards, poultry may not receive antibiotics, must be fed only certified organic feed and must be given “daily access to the outdoors.” Research has shown that the salmonella found on organic poultry might be less likely to be antibiotic-resistant, meaning severe illnesses caused by the bacteria may be easier to treat.
User submissions, however, showed that organic chicken may still come from plants with high salmonella rates: Organic ground turkey from a Plainville Brands plant in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, for example, appeared in stores such as Harris Teeter and Costco up and down the East Coast. The plant’s ground turkey had a high rate of high-risk salmonella and was also the source of a USDA public health alert for salmonella in April.
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