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.