Chemicals May Mask Salmonella Risk

Ken Tudor, DVM
Updated: July 26, 2015
Published: August 29, 2013
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This co-packaging business model is common in the pet food industry and many of the hundreds of brands are actually manufactured by a small number of companies. Therefore, contamination at one plant, or ingredient sources from one supplier would affect many brand names. But the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has found another potential reason that salmonella contamination may be missed. The findings were reported in a Washington Post article on published on August 2nd of this year.

Disinfecting Chemicals in Slaughterhouses

The USDA is reviewing studies that suggest that the chemicals used to reduce bacterial contamination in poultry slaughterhouses may mask the presence of salmonella. The average chicken carcass is dipped or sprayed with chemicals four times as it progresses through processing. The chemicals are intended to reduce surface bacterial in order to meet USDA standards to reduce bacterial contamination in slaughterhouses.

Testing for Salmonella in Meat

Randomly chosen chickens are selected from the processing line and put in a plastic bag with a special solution to collect body surface contamination. The bird is then returned to the processing line and the solution is sent off for testing the following day. Apparently the newer and stronger chemicals used in the dips and sprays are not neutralized by the special solution and continue killing bacteria in the test solution during the period from collection to testing. Although the test result might be negative, the bird could actually be positive for salmonella. Researchers are concerned that this antiquated testing system is inadequate for present poultry processing methods.


USDA Salmonella Data

USDA inspection data over the last few years have shown that salmonella detection has been halved. The question is whether the rate is less because of a true decrease in contamination or if it has decreased due to a lack of detection. Jon Howarth, a scientist and technical director of one of the disinfecting chemical manufacturers, was present at a USDA briefing where this information was released. Howarth said of the data, “Food is safer; just not as safe as the tests are showing.” He also observed that despite improved testing results, the numbers of humans afflicted with salmonella from poultry had not changed in the same time period.

In addition to masking salmonella contamination, these disinfecting chemicals are suspected of causing medical problems to humans. In an article in The Washington Post, USDA plant inspectors reported a belief that these newer chemicals are contributing to many of the medical problems this group is experiencing. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is investigating the death of an inspector in a New York poultry plant that was featured in the Post article.

Non-Virtuous Cycle of Meat Production

People expect safe food but mass producing it in processing plants makes this difficult. As this post points out, attempts to maximize that safety have their own inherent problems and may even decrease safety. Other methods of disinfection have their side effects and detractors (i.e., radiation).

I don’t have any answers and it looks as if recalls are going to co-exist with the mass production of food, for both human and pet. My research for this post is not any more positive for homemade food.

Organically raised or free-range poultry are also required to be dipped or sprayed during processing. Although these chemicals differ from those used on regular birds, they still contain chemicals that consumers are unaware of when they buy organic. Seeking a reduced chemical exposure of food is harder than imagined. And paying a premium for an organic product that contains unknown chemicals should leave a bad taste in the mouths of consumers. The alternative is going back to raising our own livestock or buying live animals at farmers’ markets to slaughter and butcher ourselves. That is obviously unworkable for the majority of pet owners and really not much safer than the present solution. Home slaughter and processing is hardly germ free.

What is Left?

We have to pick our poison. Unfortunately, it is not a Burger King world and we can’t always have it our way. If you have a solution, please let us know.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Susan Schmitz / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on July 26, 2015.