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Food: The Dangers of Foul Fowl

3 minute read
David Bjerklie

When Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving turkey this week, some uninvited guests could turn a nice meal into a miserable occasion. If the big bird is not thoroughly cooked, it could pass on bacteria that cause fever, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea — all the classic symptoms of food poisoning. Often the culprit is salmonella, a nasty microbe that, despite industry and government inspections, lurks in perhaps 35% of all poultry sold in the U.S.

Salmonella poisoning has been around for a long time, but the number of reported cases has surged, from 33,700 in 1980 to 47,800 last year. Those figures represent only a small fraction of the problem, since most cases, – while unpleasant, pass quickly and go unreported. Experts believe that each year as many as 4 million Americans have a bout with salmonella. Occasionally the infection is serious enough to require hospitalization, and it can lead to arthritis, neurological problems and even death. The elderly, AIDS sufferers and others with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to the disease, which claims 2,000 lives annually.

One reason for the spread of salmonella, ironically, is Americans’ determination to guard their health. In the quest to keep cholesterol levels down, people are turning more often to low-fat poultry: annual per capita consumption of chicken alone has risen from 40 lbs. in 1970 to more than 70 lbs. this year. Unfortunately, mass-production techniques make many poultry farms and plants prime breeding grounds for salmonella. Different strains of the bacteria can contaminate eggs as well as meat. (Raw cow’s milk can also be tainted, but beef is less of a problem than poultry because the slaughtering process is cleaner.)

Chickens typically travel a filthy path from the farm through the slaughterhouse. Stuffed 10 or 12 to a cage on the truck to the processing plant, they eat one another’s germ-laden excrement and spread it on their feathers and skin. At the plant, the birds move rapidly along a disassembly line where they are killed, dropped in scalding water, mechanically defeathered and eviscerated, and chilled in huge water tanks that usually become contaminated. “This is really no different than putting these birds in your toilet,” contends Gerald Kuester, a microbiologist with the Public Citizen advocacy group.

Poultry producers are trying to deal with the situation. They put chlorine in the chilling tanks, and they are experimenting with other chemicals in hopes of finding one that is more effective against salmonella. Irradiation could wipe out the bacteria, but it would be costly and consumer acceptance might be low, since many people mistakenly believe that zapping food with radiation makes it dangerous to eat. The visual inspections carried out routinely in the plants can weed out obviously diseased chickens, but the contamination is usually invisible. A panel of experts convened by the government may recommend soon that the Department of Agriculture develop better tests to detect salmonella.

For now, the best safeguard is to clean up kitchen techniques in homes and restaurants. The basic instructions: cook poultry until the juices run clear, | and thoroughly wash hands and food preparation surfaces as well as all plates and utensils that come into contact with raw poultry. Dane Bernard, director of microbiology at the National Food Processors Association, asserts that proper handling by cooks could reduce the number of salmonella infections at least 75%. Caution is the key. Warns Joseph Madden of the Food and Drug Administration’s microbiology division: “The consumer should assume that any poultry product has bacteria on it.”

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