It’s now illegal to sell (some) raw chicken products with Salmonella

And Big Chicken isn't happy

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 1, 2024 12:31PM (EDT)

Hand holding fried chicken drumstick (Getty Images/Sasin Paraksa)
Hand holding fried chicken drumstick (Getty Images/Sasin Paraksa)

Occasionally, I stumble across food safety headlines that make me do a double-take because they are lauding a measure that seems like it should have been standardized long ago. For instance, last week, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that they would declare Salmonella an adulterant in some raw chicken products, thus making those products illegal to sell — a decision about which the National Chicken Council has already been critical. 

The build-up to the landmark decision began in earnest in 2022 when the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) released a proposed regulatory framework for a new strategy to control Salmonella contamination in poultry products and reduce foodborne illnesses attributed to these products.

“We know that Salmonella in poultry is a complex problem with no single solution,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin at the time. “However, we have identified a series of strategic actions FSIS could take that are likely to drive down Salmonella infections linked to poultry products consumption, and we are presenting those in this proposed framework.”

The framework, which was created with collaboration from both industry stakeholders and scientists, included three key components: requiring that incoming flocks be tested for Salmonella before entering a production establishment; enhancing “establishment process control monitoring and FSIS verification”; and implementing an enforceable final product standard.

About a year later, the FSIS officially proposed classifying Salmonella —a common bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract — as an adulterant. According to the USDA’s definition, the description “adulterated” shall apply “to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more circumstances (for example: if it contains poisonous substances, pesticides, or chemicals; or if it has been prepared under insanitary conditions).” 

According to National Law Review, FSIS’s final determination this week is nearly identical to the 2022 framework proposal, with the exception of modifying the proposed sampling location to provide lower costs and more flexibility for industry members. While the organization reportedly plans on addressing Salmonella in other raw chicken products, this declaration specifically focuses on raw, breaded chicken products like frozen chicken cordon bleu or stuffed chicken breasts. 

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“Under President Biden’s leadership, USDA is taking significant steps toward keeping American consumers safe from foodborne illness,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a Friday statement. “This final determination marks the first time that Salmonella is being declared an adulterant in a class of raw poultry products. This policy change is important because it will allow us to stop the sale of these products when we find levels of Salmonella contamination that could make people sick.”

Per the agency, the FSIS “will consider to be adulterated any raw breaded stuffed chicken products that include a chicken component that tested positive for Salmonella at 1 [colony forming unit] per gram or higher.” On their end, the FSIS will carry out verification processes, including sampling and testing of the raw chicken component before it is turned into breaded, stuffed chicken products. If the chicken doesn't pass the test, the batch represented by that sample can't be used to make the final products. This rule will kick in a year after it's officially published in the Federal Register on May 1. 

However, the National Chicken Council (NCC) has already raised some concerns about the proposed measure, specifically surrounding its actual efficacy. 

"This final determination marks the first time that Salmonella is being declared an adulterant in a class of raw poultry products. "

“NCC is gravely concerned that the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves,” said NCC President Mike Brown in a release. “We’re also surprised by FSIS’s victory lap here when the agency has no idea if this will move the needle on public health.” 

According to the Council, the FSIS has never, since the Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957, taken the view that the mere presence of Salmonella on raw poultry renders the product adulterated; additionally, they classify the FSIS’ pathogen threshold at levels as low as 1 CFU to be “practically a zero tolerance policy that doesn’t consider the impact of cooking the products to a safe temperature.” 

Experts agree that the likelihood of getting sick from just one CFU of Salmonella is pretty low — typically, foodborne illnesses occur when a person ingests a large number of bacteria, usually in the range of thousands to millions of CFUs — but it’s not impossible. 

The NCC estimates more than 200 million servings of these products will be lost as part of the FSIS determination, while they also anticipate 500 to 1,000 people will lose their jobs in order for producers to cover what they anticipate to be the higher costs of new USDA testing. 

“USDA has devoted untold amounts of time, effort and taxpayer dollars  — and is willing to drive up grocery store prices for consumers and impose millions of dollars of costs on American businesses — all to develop a policy intended to reduce foodborne illness outbreaks for a product that hasn’t even been associated with an outbreak in three years and that has been associated with only one outbreak in the past nine years,” Brown said.

However, the FSIS maintains that this is a necessary step forward in combating foodborne illness as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that Salmonella bacteria cause over 1 million human infections in the U.S. each year. 

Food is the leading source of Salmonella infections and poultry products are one of the leading sources of foodborne Salmonella illnesses, according to the agency. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Chicken Commentary Food Safety Salmonella