Salmonella decline could mean fewer illnesses, deaths

APRIL 18–WASHINGTON, D.C.– The Department of Agriculture says a decline in the prevalence of harmful salmonella in meat and poultry products could signal a decrease in illnesses and deaths caused by the bacteria.

Elsa Murano, undersecretary of food safety, said that a new report shows the incidence of salmonella decreased last year even as inspectors increased sampling.

Of the 58,085 samples of meat and poultry tested for salmonella last year, 4.3 percent had the germ which can cause food-poisoning, the report says. That’s down from two years ago when 5 percent of 45,941 samples of meat and poultry tested positive.

”These data tell us that we are making steady and sustained progress in reducing the incidence of salmonella in raw meat and poultry products,” Murano said Thursday. ”This positive trend in regulatory samples will hopefully translate into fewer cases of salmonellosis due to meat and poultry.”

Salmonella can be found on several kinds of food, but especially on raw meat, eggs, dairy products and seafood. It is blamed for 1,000 deaths every year and 40,000 cases of salmonellosis. The illness causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are vulnerable.

Murano said the decline was due to a government meat safety program that began in 1998. It requires plants to submit their own strategies for preventing salmonella and E. coli bacteria that can cause food-poisoning from infecting products. Government inspectors check to make sure the plants comply.

Despite officials touting an overall decline, ground chicken alone saw an increase in the prevalence of salmonella. Out of 429 samples taken from ground chicken last year, 29.1 percent tested positive, according to the department’s report. That’s an increase from two years ago when inspectors found 19.5 percent of 262 samples had salmonella.

Broiler chickens saw a fairly steady incidence of salmonella, with 11.5 percent of 9,183 samples testing positive last year compared to 11.9 percent of 5,659 chicken samples in 2001.

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said he doesn’t understand why the department bothers tracking ground chicken.

”There’s very little ground chicken that’s sold raw at the supermarket,” he said. ”Most of it would go into chicken franks, bologna, sausages that are cooked before they are sold.”

Lobb said that although salmonella positives remain constant in chickens, ”the process is probably the best that it’s ever been.”

Processors now sterilize chickens with chlorinated water after slaughter, he said.

Consumers also can protect themselves by properly cooking meat and poultry according to instructions printed on the package.

Slight decreases in positive samples also were reported in pork products, ground beef, ground turkey, beef from cows and bulls, and beef from steers and heifers.

The Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, said the salmonella report is unreliable and deceptive because inspectors left out some information.

Felicia Nestor, a lawyer for the watchdog group, noted that the department excluded data on plants where salmonella has been found repeatedly, making it seem as if salmonella is on the decline.

”Excluding the results from the tally, all it does is give a false picture of what’s out on the market,” Nestor said. ”It’s Enron accounting.”

Steven Cohen, a department spokesman, said the agency isn’t claiming that the report is an official study but uses it to get an idea of whether plants are successfully preventing bacteria.


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