Workers process chickens at a poultry plant in Fremont, Nebraska, on December 12, 2019. The federal government announced proposed new regulations that would force food processors to reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria found in some raw chicken products or risk being shut down. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

The USDA is considering a regulatory framework that would crack down on salmonella illness in poultry production. Some farmers say the proposed rules would unfairly burden small poultry producers and risk further monopolizing the industry. 

“[The regulatory framework] is well-intentioned. I truly do think that people are just trying to help,” said Kristen Kilfoyle Boffo of Walden Local Meat in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “But the result of this is going to be catastrophic to the small American poultry farmer and slaughterhouse.” 

The framework, for which a public comment period ends Friday, December 16, proposes rules that would require poultry producers to conduct salmonella testing on all chicken flocks coming into processing plants. It would also require plants to prove their production processes reduce salmonella levels, according to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 

The framework also recommends creating a standard to ensure chicken products contaminated with higher-risk levels of salmonella would not be sold to the public. 

This standard, according to FSIS, would be made enforceable by declaring salmonella an adulterant. When food contains an adulterant, it may not be sold to the public.

“I think the language is a little confusing for folks, because when we say salmonella will be declared an adulterant, that doesn’t necessarily mean zero tolerance for all salmonella,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “We know that we’re not going to have salmonella-free chicken anytime soon in the United States. It’s too widespread in the industry.”

Instead, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is encouraging FSIS to look at the strains of salmonella that cause the most illness and identify what amount makes people sick in order to craft a product standard that growers and processors would have to meet. 

“Right now, as a consumer, you go into the grocery store and you look at the chicken, and it all says USDA inspected, but some of it is virtually free of dangerous pathogens, and some of it could be carrying a very high load of virulent, antibiotic resistant salmonella,” Sorscher said. “And you will be buying that product and taking it into your kitchen and then you’re expected to control those risks.”

Risk for Producers, Processors

While the framework could benefit consumers, small farmers fear the new product standard could put them out of business.

“The larger, integrated facilities will be able to find ways to meet these regulations… that won’t be available to the smaller processors and producers,” said Charles Ryan Wilson, owner of Maine-based Common Wealth Poultry, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. 

According to Wilson, large poultry facilities have more access to technology like vaccines created in real-time for a flock of chickens. For small producers who are growing 500 or 1,000 chickens at a time, versus the tens of thousands of chickens that larger companies process in one-go, that real-time vaccine access isn’t affordable. 

Large poultry facilities are also more flexible if a flock does test positive for salmonella before entering a slaughterhouse. Salmonella-positive chicken meat can be chemically treated or used for a different product that is safer for human consumption, like chicken breast cutlets. 

Small processors don’t have that flexibility. 

“If a [producer’s] chickens are positive for the salmonella serotypes that the USDA considers to be adulterated, the [processing] plant is going to have to ask themselves, ‘am I going to take the risk of processing this?’” Wilson said. 

While processing plants do have strategies for mitigating salmonella in their facilities, it’s extremely difficult to come out salmonella-clean 100% of the time. This means that slaughterhouses may refuse flocks from small producers to reduce their own risk as they attempt to meet the standards the regulatory framework would set. 

“Our farmers and our processors cannot handle that chaos where a larger outfit absolutely can,” said Boffo of Walden Local Meat. “If [the larger companies] get a salmonella positive, they’re just going to waterbath chill those birds and then send them to get cooked and be made into something else, and those birds will remain legal and it won’t really cause any disruption in their supply chain.

“But for us, we’d be dead in the water,” she said.

Many aspects of the regulatory framework are still unclear, like whether producers will have access to rapid salmonella testing. Along with the risk of being denied by processing plants, farmers say that any significant wait time for those lab results could be the final nail in the coffin, even if their flocks test clean for salmonella. 

“In a market where the small producer can produce that chicken and get it out the door the next day – that’s one of our huge niche advantages – we will lose that,” Wilson said.  

How Dangerous Is Salmonella? 

An estimated 1.4 million cases of salmonella occur every year in the United States, with 26,500 hospitalization and 420 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

These numbers have not changed despite the implementation of some salmonella performance standards for chicken and turkey slaughter establishments in 2011, which is why the USDA has renewed efforts to tackle the issue. 

“We want to better ensure that poultry products with levels or types of salmonella contamination that can make people sick are not sold to consumers,” said Sandra Eskin, deputy under secretary for food safety, in a public meeting on November 3. 

Salmonella, which is most commonly found in birds but occurs in other animals as well, usually spreads to humans through the consumption of raw or undercooked meat, according to the CDC. It can also be transmitted if raw meat is prepared on the same surface as foods that are eaten raw, like fruits and vegetables. 

While the bacteria can spread between chicken carcasses in slaughterhouses, it also originates in breeder flocks and hatcheries, according to FSIS. Hatcheries supply most poultry producers with their chicks each season. 

“There’s only so much that any grower, no matter what the production system, no matter what they’re doing, there’s only so much you can do to eliminate a strain of salmonella that shows up on the baby chicks,” Greg Gunthorp of Indiana-based Gunthorp Farms said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. 

Gunthorp believes the USDA is looking at just a snapshot of the chicken production process, from when birds enter and leave the processing plant, instead of looking at salmonella reduction measures at every stage of production. 

“I don’t think the [USDA] has given any thought to the fact that in order to actually lower the number of cases of salmonella, we have to have a holistic plan in this country, all the way from the breeder birds to the point that chicken is consumed,” Gunthorp said. 

More holistic strategies could mean regulating salmonella within hatcheries and educating consumers on illness prevention measures while preparing chicken meat and eggs at home, according to Gunthorp. 

In response to small producers’ concerns about the framework, an FSIS spokesperson told the Daily Yonder that the agency “understands that small and very small poultry establishments have resource constraints and that, to alleviate those constraints, FSIS will consider how new requirements impact smaller operations and identify the best way to help smaller establishments meet the new requirements once they are put in place.”

Small farmers don’t deny the danger of salmonella in the United States. But they don’t feel that USDA has adequately considered how these regulations could harm their businesses.   

Small producers were the backbone of the country’s food supply at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when large poultry companies cut production because of lower demand from international markets and the food service industry, according to reporting from The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates forces that shape what Americans eat. 

“[The pandemic] exposed the fragility of having a small amount of processors providing the majority of the food,” said Wilson of Common Wealth Poultry. “Companies like mine and others were able to be beacons of light in this time, I mean, we were able to provide people with food that never would have reached out to us because the supermarkets didn’t have chicken on the shelf.” 

The producers see USDA’s proposed salmonella regulatory framework as a slap in the face after the work they put in over the past three years to put food on the tables of people across the country. 

“And now, [USDA] wants to further monopolize this whole industry to a few large companies that could handle [tightened salmonella regulations] and put out of business the people that were there during Covid raising food for Americans,” said Boffo of Walden Local Meat. 

“It just seems foolish to me.”

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