clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is just a horrifying paragraph about food safety in America

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said October 07 that it had issued a public health alert after raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms have sickened hundreds of people.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said October 07 that it had issued a public health alert after raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms have sickened hundreds of people.
(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

This week's New Yorker has a terrific feature by Wil S. Hylton about some of the problems with food-safety regulation in America.

Everyone should go read his piece, but the anecdote below stands out. Back in 2013, US officials had good reason to believe that Foster Farms, a company in California, was shipping tainted chicken and causing a massive drug-resistant salmonella outbreak that was sickening hundreds. Yet for months, there was little that regulators could do, legally speaking, to stop it:

Identifying the cause of an outbreak is much simpler than trying to stop one. Once officials have traced the contamination to a food producer, the responsibility to curb the problem falls to the U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or F.S.I.S. In the summer of 2013, as the outbreak spread, F.S.I.S. officials shared the C.D.C.'s conclusion that Foster Farms meat was behind the outbreak, but they had no power to force a recall of the tainted chicken. Federal law permits a certain level of salmonella contamination in raw meat. But when federal limits are breached, and officials believe that a recall is necessary, their only option is to ask the producer to remove the product voluntarily. Even then, officials may only request a recall when they have proof that the meat is already making customers sick. As evidence, the F.S.I.S. typically must find a genetic match between the salmonella in a victim's body and the salmonella in a package of meat that is still in the victim's possession, with its label still attached. If the patient has already eaten the meat, discarded the package, or removed the label, the link becomes difficult to make, and officials can't request a voluntary recall.

Let's count the issues here:

  1. In 2013, food-safety investigators were going into sick people's homes and finding evidence of salmonella-tainted chicken from Foster Farms.
  2. But because they couldn't procure an exact genetic match with the bacteria in people's bodies, they weren't able to get the chicken recalled. (They did, however, put out a public warning in October 2013.)
  3. It took a year and 144 traces before they finally made a genetic match. During that time, Foster Farms kept selling tainted chicken and there were 621 people reported cases of Heidelberg salmonella (with thousands more cases possibly unreported).
  4. Once it had proof, the USDA couldn't just require Foster Farms to recall the tainted chicken. It had to request a voluntary recall. In this case, the company agreed to withdraw some chicken from its California facilities for a week.

Back in 2013, the Pew Charitable Trusts, took a look at the Foster Farms story and concluded that some of the rules around meat production need to be tightened or seriously reworked. For instance:

Salmonella is fairly pervasive in raw chicken, so the USDA sets performance standards rather than require all chicken be salmonella-free. That in itself is fair enough. (Cooking the meat thoroughly at 165°F should kill the bacteria, though this isn't always done.) Yet up until last week, those standards only applied to whole chickens — not to cut-up chicken parts, which are widely sold.

What's more, thanks to a court case from 2001, USDA regulators aren't legally allowed to shut down a meat plant just because it fails to meet those salmonella standards. And the USDA doesn't have the authority to order mandatory recalls. (In egregious cases, the agency can seize or detain products, but again, they need to find a genetic match proving the food is making people sick.)

Another confusing layer here is that Congress sets different rules for different food-safety agencies. In 2011, lawmakers passed a bill to allow the FDA — which oversees non-meat foods — to do mandatory recalls and set safety standards for produce. But the USDA — which oversees meat and poultry — operates under a different law dating back to 1906. There are occasionally proposals to consolidate oversight, but they don't get far in Congress.

Are there ways to prevent future salmonella outbreaks?

Mmmmmm. Salmonella Typhimurium. (USIG/Getty Images)

Ever since the Foster Farms fiasco, policymakers have been reconsidering at least some of these rules, as this excellent 2014 Washington Post piece by Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis details. The USDA, for instance, recently proposed new salmonella standards for chicken parts as well.*

Some food-safety groups want to go even further and ban the sale of poultry that contains the most dangerous strains of salmonella (rather than simply allowing upper limits and hoping people cook it enough). But the meat industry has pushed back, arguing that this would be impossibly expensive — since salmonella is so ubiquitous. Their position is that consumers need to bear some of the responsibility here.

Meanwhile, Mark Bittman raised a related issue during the Foster Farms outbreak. The heavy use of antibiotics in livestock production raises the risk that certain strains of salmonella (or other bacteria) could become drug-resistant and more tenacious — so the overuse of antibiotics on farms is an angle that needs to be considered. The FDA has recently begun cracking down there.

In any case, you should definitely check out Hylton's piece, which tells the fascinating story of the people trying to fix this system — including Bill Marler, a food-safety lawyer who crusades against companies suspected to be linked to particular disease outbreaks.

Further reading: Some tips on how to cook meat properly so that it doesn't kill you. Also see this earlier piece by Susannah Locke about how the consolidation of the meat industry may be making food outbreaks more common.

WATCH: 'Mark Bittman on what's wrong with food in America (Vox Interviews)

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.