Salmonella in Raw Poultry – From Processing to Purchasing

According to the CDC, an estimated 1.2 million Americans a year get sick from Salmonella infections. Of these, around 23,000 are hospitalized and approximately 450 people die. While there have been innovations around whole chicken processing that have led to reductions in bacteria, around 1.5% of carcasses still test positive for Salmonella at processing plants. Additionally, chicken parts (such as a package of raw chicken breasts), don’t even have USDA-FSIS performance standards established as yet.

With due diligence from processors and consumers on safe poultry handling practices, rates of foodborne illness from Salmonella can be reduced.

Stopping Salmonella from Reaching Grocery Stores

Processors must take on the burden of reducing Salmonella’s presence in raw poultry while government programs continue to educate consumers on proper handling and cooking practices. There are a couple of steps that food processors can take to reduce the chances of Salmonella cross-contaminating their products:

Implement zoning and color-coding

Hygienic zoning, when supported by color-coding, helps reduce the spread of contamination at critical points in a processing environment. Each processing step can be assigned a different color, which keeps tools used on pre-cleaned chicken away from those used on ready-to-package poultry. Workers’ protective clothing can also be separated depending on the zone they’re used in. Color-coding can also be used to keep the cleaning brushes that are used on food-contact surfaces from being mixed up with those used on drains or floors. Moreover, tool racks and shadow boards can separate tools from each other even when they’re being stored. With many companies offering products in 9-12 colors, there are enough choices to add color-coded support to almost any hygienic zoning plan.

Use hygienically designed tools.

Hygienically designed tools are normally made of FDA compliant materials and are less likely to support the survival, growth, and spread of pathogens like Salmonella. They are generally free of cracks and crevices (that could allow bacteria to hide and multiply in), and have rounded corners and smooth surfaces that make them easy to clean and dry. Tools that are easier to clean are more likely to be cleaned more often and more thoroughly. Any tool that has multiple pieces should be able to be separated easily for cleaning.

Keep poultry at acceptable temperatures.

One of the best ways to control Salmonella contamination is by keeping poultry at temperatures under 39° F. When poultry is held below this danger point, bacteria growth is slowed. In the range between 40-140° F, bacteria flourishes, which may lead to high amounts of Salmonella that can, in turn, cause consumer illnesses and public outbreaks.

Consumer and Retailer Behavior

Although over half of Americans say they believe that preparing food at home is safer than eating out, a study has found that consumers don’t always treat raw poultry with foodborne illness prevention in mind, nor do retailers. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE) collaborated on a study that found:

  • Only 18% of stores had plastic bags in the meat and poultry sections. In those stores, only 25% of shoppers used them.
  • 87% of shoppers touched their cart’s handle after handling raw poultry.
  • 84% of shoppers placed their poultry near other food items in the cart, and 56% of them placed it such that it directly touched their other food items.

It’s clear that consumers and retailers need better education on safe poultry practices since processors can’t completely eliminate all harmful bacteria from uncooked poultry. FMI and PSFE are working with FightBac.org on their “Don’t Wing It” campaign to help increase consumer awareness of foodborne illness and on how to prevent it.

The Don’t Wing It campaign promotes:

  • Not directly touching raw poultry in the store and using provided plastic bags to store the item.
  • Using hand sanitizer and a disinfecting wipe for cleaning shopping cart handles before use.
  • At home, placing poultry immediately into the freezer and using the refrigerator to thaw it to prevent the poultry’s juices from contaminating other products. 
  • Cooking raw poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165° F.

It’s important to note that raw poultry processing can’t eliminate all probable harmful bacteria. Consumers therefore need to learn how to safely handle packages of poultry during shopping, storing, and cooking. However, there are also a few ways poultry processors can help in reducing the spread of Salmonella, such as the use of color-coding, using hygienically designed tools, and keeping poultry at safe temperatures. Therefore, processors as well as consumers and retailers have significant roles in reducing the overall rates of foodborne illnesses.