Is Your Chicken Safe From Salmonella?

USDA tests chicken, but there's things you can do to stay safe.

November 10, 2009, 10:17 PM

Nov. 11, 2009 — -- Sharon Cohen's kitchen looked spotless. The toaster sparkled, the utensils shined and the dishes in the sink looked clean.

But when the lights went off, Cohen's kitchen lit up. Cohen was unaware "Good Morning America" had treated the chicken she had just cooked with Glo Germ Powder, a product designed to simulate the spread of germs.

Special UV rays revealed more than a dozen hot spots of potential contamination in her kitchen that appeared when she prepared the two packages of chicken, despite diligent washing.

If the Glo Germ Powder had been the real stuff, the kinds of bacteria found on raw chicken, it could be dangerous. Chicken can carry salmonella, which is the No. 1 cause of food-borne illness in the United States.

Of the 1.4 million people who contract salmonellosis every year, 15,000 are hospitalized and more than 400 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At processing plants such as the one run by Fieldale Farms in Georgia, which packages about 230,000 chickens per day, the plant spot checks temperature and tests for salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires salmonella testing at all poultry plants, but up to 20 percent of the chicken sampled can test positive.

"We have the safest chicken now that we've ever had since the testing began," said microbiologist and poultry producer adviser Scott Russell. "To get it much safer than it is now, we are looking at zero tolerance."

On average, about 5 percent of chicken tests positive for salmonella, according to Russell, who suggested that chicken on grocery store shelves would reflect the same percentage.

"Good Morning America" tested 100 packages and found that, for packages of chicken parts, 20 percent tested positive for salmonella. For ground chicken, 54 percent tested positive.

Checking Meat Temp a 'No-Brainer' to USDA Official

According to Russell, "GMA's" tests may be more sensitive than the USDA's, and chicken parts are more likely to become cross-contaminated during processing, which happens after the USDA has already done its testing.

"Until the USDA in some respect decides what's more important, the industry or public health, ... we're going to live in this world where basically the calculation is 'OK, well, there's a certain level of illness, injury, death and hospitalization that we're going to accept each year as sort of the cost of doing business,'" said attorney Denis Stearns, who represents victims of food-borne illnesses.

According to the USDA, there's no conflict in the agency's mission.

"I'm not confused about what my mission is at all," said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, chief medical officer at the USDA. "And I don't think anybody who works here with me at the Food Safety Inspection Service is confused either. We are 100 percent about protecting public health."

For now, it's up to the consumer to heed the USDA-mandated instructions on labels to cook chicken thoroughly, to 165 degrees, and prevent cross-contamination.

To Hagen, ensuring meat is cooked well enough with a meat thermometer to keep you and your family safe is "a no-brainer," comparing it to locking a door or wearing a seat belt.

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