The US Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it’s considering changes to limit the amount of salmonella bacteria in some chicken products.
About 1.35 million people in the US get sick from salmonella every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly a quarter of infections are attributed to eating poultry, the USDA said.
Salmonella infections cost the US $4.1 billion annually, the USDA said.
“USDA is taking science-based, decisive action to drive down Salmonella illnesses linked to poultry products,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. “Today’s proposal represents the first step in a broader effort to control Salmonella contamination in all poultry products, as well as a continued commitment to protecting American consumers from foodborne illness.”
The rule would declare salmonella an adulterant, a substance that ends up in a product when it’s being made or that is an unlisted ingredient, and it would apply to breaded stuffed raw chicken products like those found in a store’s freezer section. They may be stuffed with butter, cheese or ham and then breaded, like chicken Kiev or chicken cordon bleu.
Those products may look like they’ve been cooked or browned before freezing, but they are only heat-treated, and they contain raw chicken that needs to be thoroughly cooked to destroy salmonella, the USDA said.
The agency said that because of the products’ appearance, it may also be difficult to determine whether they’ve been cooked enough. The multiple ingredients also cook at different rates. To kill the bacteria, the chicken would need to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Labeling of these products has changed significantly over time to be clearer that customers need to cook them thoroughly, the USDA said.
Under the proposed rule, any product that tests positive for salmonella at 1 colony-forming unit (CFU) per gram prior to stuffing and breading would not be allowed on store shelves. The company would have to recall any product found with this kind of contamination.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for the next 60 days.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said it is suggesting this rule because there have been 14 outbreaks and about 200 illnesses associated with salmonella in breaded stuffed raw chicken products since 1998. The most recent outbreak, in 2021, had 11 illnesses.
Salmonella causes more foodborne illness than any other bacteria, according to the CDC. It’s a big problem for all chicken products, not just the ones that are breaded and stuffed. About 1 in every 25 packages of chicken at grocery stores is contaminated with the bacteria, the CDC says.
The USDA says the new proposal builds on efforts it announced in October to limit salmonella exposure from the nation’s poultry supply.
The agency said at the time that salmonella in poultry is a “complex problem with no single solution.” The framework would require growers to test incoming flocks for salmonella before the birds would be allowed to enter an establishment. There would also be enhanced process control monitoring requirements and an enforceable final product standard.
The National Chicken Council, which represents the broiler chicken industry, expressed “grave concerns” about the new proposed regulations and said they are not based in science or data.
Council President Mike Brown said that he recognizes that the products appear ready to eat and require special considerations that merit additional attention. But, he said, the council and its member companies have spent millions to develop best practices and to reduce bacteria to protect public health.
“These efforts have been paying off, demonstrated by a significant decline in illness over the past seven years,” Brown said in a statement.
The council said it has twice petitioned the USDA for stricter standards on labels to make sure consumers understand how to cook the products to make them safe, but it has not received a response.
Brown said the new proposal would shutter processing plants, drive smaller companies out of the market and take food off shelves without improving public safety.
Consumer Reports, an advocacy group for consumers, said Tuesday that that salmonella is “widespread” in chicken because the animals are often kept in “crowded and filthy conditions,” but the proposal is an “important first step.”
A 2022 investigation from Consumer Reports that focused on ground chicken found that a third of samples were contaminated with salmonella, and every strain was resistant to at least one antibiotic.
Consumer Reports has asked the USDA to set more aggressive goals and says it would like the agency to have more authority to inspect poultry plants and be able to close facilities immediately if tests show high rates of salmonella.
Symptoms of a salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps that can start within hours or days of consuming the bacteria. Most people will recover with treatment but should seek immediate attention from a health care provider if they have severe symptoms, symptoms that don’t improve after a few days or signs of dehydration.