What I learned from the salmonella outbreak and recall

THE RECENT EGG RECALL WAS MASSIVE – A HALF A BILLION EGGS. The eggs were recalled because of salmonella. Here is some of the information I discovered in reading about the recall and salmonella.

  1. All chicken and eggs have the potential to be tainted with salmonella, regardless of how they are raised or fed. Conventional, cage-free, free-range, pastured, organic, or vegetarian fed – none of these labels mean salmonella-free.
  2. How a chicken is raised and fed does impact the risk factor.

    Conventionally raised and cage-free chickens live in over-crowded conditions (farmers are only required to give chickens a space about the size of a sheet of computer paper).  Cage-free are loose rather than stacked in battery cages. In either case, the chickens are surrounded by their own waste and never go outside into the sunlight and fresh air. They are frequently debeaked, force molted, and/or bred to have extra large breasts – the last meaning they often can’t walk around. They are fed a diet that isn’t what chickens naturally eat. All of these factors negatively impact the chickens’ immune systems and increase their exposure to salmonella.

    Pastured and free-range chickens are more likely to have adequate space to roam, scratch and engage in other natural chicken-y behaviors. They spend time outside (in some cases 100% of their time is spent outside.) Pastured chickens eat a natural chicken diet of grasses and insects. These factors positively impact chicken immune systems and decrease their exposure to salmonella.

    But here’s the rub: it all depends on the farm. A farm can raise free range birds in a filthy environment with poor feed or conventional birds in an exceptionally clean environment with top quality feed. So while the label can give you an idea of how the chickens are raised, it’s no guarantee.

  3. Salmonella can get into chickens and eggs in a variety of ways and contamination can occur in the barn or during cleaning and processing.

    In poultry, salmonella often comes from feed or supplements tainted with rodent feces, unsanitary living conditions, unsanitary processing equipment, contact with rodents, flies or birds, or a combination of these things.

    In eggs, salmonella can get in from the inside or the outside. A hen with salmonella in her system can transfer it to the egg, or an egg exposed to salmonella from unsanitary conditions can absorb it through the porous shell.

  4. The only way to guarantee you are safe from salmonella in poultry and eggs is to cook food thoroughly to safe temperatures and to use safe handling methods to prevent cross-contamination.

    Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and eggs to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash your hands, disinfect surfaces, and don’t rinse poultry before cooking. Find more safe handling tips at the USDA web site.

THIS RECALL IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT MAKES IT CLEAR that unsanitary conditions will lead to a massive outbreak of salmonella. About 2000 people were sickened. It is unclear how many illnesses were from under-cooked food versus how many from cross-contamination. But in the end, the more eggs and chickens contaminated, the more chance for illness.

Even if we could eradicate salmonella, I’m not sure I would support the effort as I fear it would prohibit the raising of pastured and free-range chickens. And I certainly wouldn’t support a vaccine or the irradiation of meat and eggs. Better to try to but food with the least risk and follow safe handling and cooking methods.

But just because salmonella is killed when it’s cooked doesn’t give farmers a pass on keeping chickens in sanitary conditions and using unhealthy or contaminated feed.

The bottom line: If you can buy higher quality eggs and poultry from a source you trust, do it. Regardless, cook eggs and chicken thoroughly and use safe handling methods to avoid cross-contamination.

2 comments for “What I learned from the salmonella outbreak and recall

  1. David Constant
    August 31, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Excellent information! Thank you for the post.

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