STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
California's biggest chicken producer, Foster Farms, has been accused in the past of poisoning people, selling meat contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Last fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to shut down three of the company's plants. Since then, Foster Farms has spent millions to get rid of salmonella, and some food safety experts now say the whole poultry industry should follow this example. NPR's Dan Charles has this story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Bob O'Connor, a senior veterinarian at Foster Farms wants to show me the salmonella problem up close. So we've come to a ranch near the town of Merced in California's Central Valley. I see dozens of long, narrow chicken houses lined up across acres of dried bare dirt. We step inside one of the houses. Thousands of little chicks walking around on the floor. They're 11 days old, cute, healthy-looking, but O'Connor says there's a lot you can't see.
BOB O'CONNOR: I really cannot look at this flock of birds and say to you that, you know, these birds have salmonella in their GI tract.
CHARLES: But you have to assume that some do, he says. Scientists have tested some flocks in the U.S. and Europe and found salmonella in anywhere from 7 to 70 percent of all live chickens, which is disturbing because people eventually will eat these birds. Fully cooking them does kill the bacteria, but if salmonella on raw chicken gets on your cutting board, for instance, and then on other food, it can make you really sick.
So for years now, the poultry industry's been struggling to control salmonella. These chicken houses, for example, are designed to keep out wildlife, like mice or wild birds that carry the bacteria. When chickens are slaughtered, the carcasses are washed with antimicrobial solutions. The USDA says no more than 7.5 percent of all chicken carcasses coming out of any plant can test positive for salmonella. Foster Farms, which turns out millions of pounds of chicken meat every week, usually does much better than that.
O'CONNOR: We had 0 percent on most of our carcass sample. I mean, I you look back three, four years, every sample set we were at 0 percent.
CHARLES: So Bob O'Connor thought they were doing really well. But then last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there was evidence that chicken from Foster Farms had caused a wave of salmonella infections. More than 600 people had gotten sick. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived at Foster Farms plants, and this time they went much further than the standard safety test. Instead of just testing whole chicken carcasses, they took samples of what most consumers actually buy, the cut-up parts, breasts and thighs and wings. And what they found is now shaking up the entire poultry industry.
They found salmonella on about 25 percent of those cut-up chicken parts. David Acheson, a former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, says this turns out to be the pattern at other poultry companies, too. Whole carcasses seem to be free of salmonella, but then it shows up on nearly a quarter of the chicken parts. It's provoking all kinds of questions.
DAVID ACHESON: What happened? Did this bug come in from the environment? Did something contaminate it during the process? The equipment? The workers? Something weird like that? Or were we missing it the first time?
CHARLES: Probably we were missing it, Acheson says. Here's one theory for how - when those whole carcasses are tested, they've been chilled to 40 degrees. But then they move to another part of the plant where they're cut up, and they get 10 degrees or so warmer. That warmth may release salmonella that were trapped in skin pores of the chilled carcass. And then the process of cutting up the carcass could spread the microbes around, contaminating lots of other chicken parts. No matter how the salmonella got there, though, Foster Farms had to figure out a way to get rid of them. Bob O'Connor says the USDA sent letters threatening to close three of the company's plants.
O'CONNOR: And we had 72 hours to respond to that, to come up with a plan to control salmonella prevalence on parts.
CHARLES: O'Connor and his colleagues brought in outside advisers including David Acheson, the former FDA official who now works as a consultant to food companies. And they went searching for the cause of their problem. They tested slaughtered chickens and picked up a clue. Birds that grew up on some farms were much more likely to carry salmonella than birds from other farms. One of those farms was the one that Bob O'Connor has taken me to visit today.
O'CONNOR: This particular farm seem to have more prevalence for salmonella.
CHARLES: Some food safety experts thought the salmonella might be invading the chicken houses from outside, carried by mice or birds ore beetles. So the company tested for salmonella on the dirt near these houses and in the green irrigated fields nearby.
O'CONNOR: Those are vineyards that you passed by right there. There's an almond orchard right there; that's where we went. We literally drag-swabbed, you know, through that almond orchard, through that vineyard.
CHARLES: But they discovered the further they moved from the chicken houses, the less salmonella they found. The contamination was concentrated in the houses. It seems that at some point, the bacteria got established inside these houses and then infected each new flock of chickens that came to live here. Those bacteria had to go.
O'CONNOR: So the interventions that we did for broilers was to really focus on cleaning up the houses themselves.
CHARLES: They attacked this chicken house, the one that's now filled with little chicks.
O'CONNOR: The whole entire house was soaped down. Then you disinfect it. Then you let it sit. So we let these farms sit for probably at least six weeks without any birds in them.
CHARLES: Foster Farms did a lot of other things, too. It made sure that the breeding hens in their hatcheries were salmonella-free because if those hens have salmonella, then their chicks probably will, too. The company put more money into vaccinations, spent more time washing equipment in processing plants. It all took months, but it made a difference.
The amount of chicken parts that tested positive for salmonella fell from 20 percent to less than 5 percent. David Acheson, the former FDA official, says that's really good. It's setting a new safety standard for the whole industry. Others, like attorney Bill Marler who makes his living suing food companies when their food makes people sick, say it's not good enough.
BILL MARLER: The standard is, it's still OK to have a pathogen on your product that can sicken and kill your customers. And as long as that's the way it is, we're always going to limp from outbreak to outbreak to outbreak.
CHARLES: Marler says the USDA should take the same stand against salmonella that it did against another dangerous microbe, disease causing E. coli. When the USDA declared these E. coli illegal adulterants in food, the meat industry complained. But it also found new ways to prevent E. coli from poisoning people.
MARLER: It used to be 90 percent of my law firm's revenue, and now it's nearly zero. It's a success story.
CHARLES: Eliminating salmonella altogether would be difficult. It's much more common in the environment than disease-causing E. coli. So for now the USDA is asking companies to reduce salmonella contamination. But it's not requiring chicken meat to be completely salmonella-free. Dan Charles, NPR News.