Clean Up Those Contaminated Chicken Parts, USDA Tells Industry : The Salt The government wants to make your chicken meat safer to handle. The USDA is proposing legal limits on the chicken parts that are contaminated with salmonella bacteria.

Clean Up Those Contaminated Chicken Parts, USDA Tells Industry

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The government wants to make raw chicken meat safer to handle. Right now, about a quarter of the cut-up chicken you buy is contaminated with salmonella bacteria. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed some new rules today aimed at cutting that number drastically. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The USDA already has a legal limit on the percentage of whole chickens that can carry salmonella bacteria. That limit is 7.5 percent, and until about a year ago government officials figured that was enough. But most people buy chicken parts - thighs, breasts and drumsticks - and during an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that was traced to the Foster Farms company in California, the USDA scientists started systematically testing those parts, too. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says they discovered that those chicken parts were three or four times more likely to test positive for Salmonella than the whole chickens. Ground chicken meat was even worse.

TOM VILSACK: The question was why? What were we missing?

CHARLES: Something may happen during the cutting-up process that spreads the bacteria around or perhaps releases them from pores in the chicken's skin. Whatever the cause, that discovery persuaded the USDA to propose a new set of legal standards covering poultry parts and ground poultry. The limits will cover salmonella and also a less common microbe called campylobacter. If the proposal goes into force, companies will have to cut the amount of salmonella contamination about in half. There will be more testing, too, and some public shaming.

VILSACK: We're going to be posting facility ratings or category ratings online as a way of encouraging folks to try to get to a better place.

CHARLES: The USDA says right now about 60 percent of poultry processing plants are probably violating those proposed limits. But The National Chicken Council, an industry group, says when the limits go into effect, companies will meet them. Michael Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says companies certainly can do this. He says, look at what Foster Farms did after it was identified as the source of that Salmonella outbreak a year ago.

MICHAEL DOYLE: The company has literally driven that percentage of positive samples down to well below what the USDA's expectations are.

CHARLES: Foster Farms cut the share of chicken parts testing positive for Salmonella from 25 percent, the industry average, to less than 5 percent. Under the USDA's proposal, the legal limit will be 15 percent, a much less ambitious goal. But Doyle says, it's a reasonable start. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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