Monday, December 14, 2015

Who looks at your food: Chicken

In my last post I talked about inspecting food that you produce yourself - and I pointed out that you, as the farmer, should be looking carefully at it.  I'd say that same for food that you sell to others - why would you sell something that you wouldn't eat yourself?

From that perspective, my practice on my own farm is to send a percentage of my own production through the processing system that my customers use, and I consume it at the other end; it's a simple way to stay on top of the quality issues related to what's on my customers plates.

Who looks at commercial chicken:

For commercial chicken, the current standard is to process around 140 birds a minute; those birds flying by on the line are inspected by one USDA inspector, and at that rate, they have to inspect 2.33 birds EVERY SECOND.

There are requirements that the plants test the chickens for harmful bacteria, but they're given the choice whether to test for  campylobacter or salmonella. - but are not required to test for both.  

The internal organs, if they're supplied with your chicken, are virtually never the heart, liver and gizzard of the bird itself.  Birds are broken down on the line, and then re-packed with innards from other birds; the whole thing happens on a pretty large dis-assembly line, so most chickens come in contact with most of the equipment on their trip through the line.   

In my opinon that is an opportunity for cross-contamination on an industrial scale.  If anything goes wrong in the anti-bacterial work that they do anywhere in the plant, it's possible to be fairly widely spread.

And in fact, test of supermarket chicken show that nearly 75% of the chicken sold is probably contaminated by bacteria inside the package, and that even 7% of the OUTSIDE of the packages contained potentially harmful bacteria - which means when you put the chicken into your shopping cart at the store it can cross-contaminate your other food items before you even get home.

Salmonella can also cause illness and death, and it's also found on and in packages of chicken.  Most recently in October of 2015.

What is being done?

Even though companies are trying to solve this problem, they are apparently not succeeding.  Witness Foster farms 2014 announcement about progress with Salmonella followed by the 2015 recall of chicken for...salmonella

 In my opinion, the current inspection and testing of chicken as a safe food is both ineffective and unlikely to prevent outbreaks.  When you buy chicken, consider the outside of the packages probably contaminated, and the inside of the packages certainly contimated by bacteria that will be made safe by thorough cooking.  
  Since the chicken industry has consolidated considerably in the last 20 years, you will find roughly the same chicken (under different brand names) in different stores.  I don't know of any store or brand that is more safe than any other -- handle it carefully, cook it completely, and consider it contaminated at each step while its raw.

If you raise and process your own chicken you can take some simple steps to reduce contamination; keep your work areas clean, clean your utensils before and after each slaughter, and keep each bird to itself - don't mix birds organs, for instance.  Bleach, soap and heat all will help with the process.

Here's a useful link on safely home-processing poultry

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