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Why So Many People Get Salmonella From Chicken

A new Frontline documentary explores how inadequate rules for dealing with salmonella in poultry can prolong outbreaks.

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Salmonella sickens more than 1 million Americans each year and hospitalizes more people than any other foodborne illness. Yet for all these problems, salmonella has gotten surprisingly little attention from the U.S. government, a new Frontline investigation shows.

One major problem that the documentary points out: Salmonella contamination alone is not enough to trigger a food recall. While the USDA deems harmful bacteria — such as certain strains of E. coli — to be "adulterants," giving the agency the authority to prevent the sale of contaminated products, it does not classify salmonella that way. That means the government does not have the authority to recall a product solely on the basis of salmonella contamination— a decision that is left largely to companies.

Frontline's investigation shows how companies' reluctance to act has lead to widespread illness. Salmonella Heidelberg infected 634 people in 29 states from March 2013 to July 2014. The documentary, "The Trouble With Chicken," premieres Tuesday on PBS and at pbs.org/frontline.

"We have a government that says it will protect us, but the things it's protecting us from are quite complex, and the way they're doing it is behind the times," Frontline correspondent David Hoffman told BuzzFeed News. "The film shows that the government has a very narrow understanding of its authority to demand a recall."

Frontline provided an exclusive clip to BuzzFeed News in which Mike Robach, a vice president at Cargill, describes the USDA's outmoded inspection practices, which focus on physical abnormalities such as bruises or smells in poultry rather than bacterial infections. Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey in 2011 due to possible contamination from salmonella Heidelberg.

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Government testing sometimes has proven ineffective in identifying contamination. For instance, according to data obtained by BuzzFeed News and provided to Frontline, in the three years leading up to the 2013 Foster Farms outbreak, more than 500 samples taken at four of the company's production plants failed to detect salmonella.

Until recently, inspectors typically looked at whole birds rather than poultry parts — such as breasts and wings — even though parts account for 80% of the poultry sold in the U.S., according to Frontline. Realizing that salmonella levels were higher in these cut-up parts, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed new standards for testing for salmonella in January and just began regularly testing poultry parts in March.

The need to control outbreaks is becoming more important as bacteria develop resistances to antibiotics, making them harder to treat once people are sick.

The USDA has not declared salmonella an adulterant, but it is updating its rules for poultry inspection. "The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release last year.

A USDA spokesperson wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News: "Currently, USDA is placing tighter Salmonella standards on the poultry industry than ever before to target not just some but all strains of Salmonella." It says it is requiring companies to do additional testing, placing inspectors at different points in food facilities and testing poultry parts in addition to whole birds.

For now, consumers remain advised to make sure they thoroughly cook their chicken and turkey to 165 degrees before eating it.

Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.

Contact Venessa Wong at venessa.wong@buzzfeed.com.

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