Federal officials for weeks have been on the hunt for the underlying source of a bacterial contaminant in raw chicken that has sickened more than 90 people in 29 states, 11 percent of them identified in New York.
A multi-drug resistant bacterium — Salmonella infantis — has cropped up in a wide range of chicken products. The bacteria are capable of repelling 13 major antibiotics, which makes illnesses caused by the microbes tougher to treat.
As food inspection investigators have fanned out across the country, they have found the strain in 58 poultry slaughterhouses and chicken processing plants. The drug-resistant superbug has turned up in live chickens and in pet food.
“The outbreak strain of Salmonella infantis is present in live chickens and in many types of raw chicken products, indicating it might be widespread in the chicken industry,” said Brittany Behm, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases.
“A single, common source has not been identified,” added Behm, who described the agency’s investigation as ongoing.
No recalls have been issued and CDC is not advising that consumers avoid eating properly cooked chicken products.
Of the 92 detected infections in the outbreak, most have been clustered in the Northeast. Ten infections have occurred in New York. The New York state Department of Health would not reveal where the infections were identified, citing patient confidentiality laws.
All told, those who have been infected range in age from under 1 year to 105, CDC data shows. One-third of those infected with the outbreak strain had to be hospitalized.
While data collected by the CDC reflect the scope of the probe through mid-October, consumer groups say the findings are only the tip of the iceberg because an unknown number of infections are probably being self-treated and not reported.
Salmonella infantis is one of more than 2,000 strains of Salmonella, many of which find their way into the food supply, often in poultry.
Even though the outbreak was announced in recent weeks, it has been unfolding for months, according to the CDC, which discovered the problem through data sent to its PulseNet system. State health departments submit to the PulseNet database any genetic fingerprint information on serious infectious agents that have been laboratory-confirmed.
Experts at the CDC are then able to spot evolving trends and begin investigations that involve interviewing patients and testing contaminated products.
“The outbreak strain was identified in samples taken from raw chicken pet food, raw chicken products, and live chickens. One person got sick after pets in their home ate raw ground chicken pet food,” Behm said, suggesting contact with the animals transferred the bacteria to the pet owner.
As the investigation of Salmonella infantis in chicken products progressed, federal public health investigators began examining a separate Salmonella outbreak. This one related to contaminated beef. An estimated 6.9 million pounds were recalled in October. The tainted beef, which sickened more than 100 people in 23 states, was traced to an Arizona company. The strain has been identified as Salmonella newport. It is not drug resistant.
Consumer advocates want Salmonella — whether drug resistant or susceptible to antibiotics — declared a potentially deadly adulterant. Any food found to have Salmonella should be banished from the food supply, advocates say. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects and guarantees meat safety, repeatedly has denied that request.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest twice has petitioned the USDA to have Salmonella declared an adulterant and banned from the food supply, said Sarah Sorscher, the center’s deputy director of regulatory affairs. Despite the center’s appeals, its most recent petition was denied in February; a similar request was turned down several years ago, she said.
The center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, is a watchdog and consumer advocacy group that focuses on safe and healthy foods.
“There are countries in Europe where it is illegal to sell chicken if there is known Salmonella contamination,” said Sorscher, who added that the U.S. lags behind other Western countries when it comes to Salmonella in the food supply.
An estimated 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths annually are attributed to Salmonella strains of all kinds, according to the CDC. Salmonella is grouped in a class known as Gram-negative bacteria characterized by a double-deck cell membrane, which affords them the biological equivalence of a bulletproof vest.
Not only is it tough for antibiotics to penetrate Gram-negative strains, their potential to develop drug resistance is exceptionally high.
Doctors and consumer advocates insist drug-resistant superbugs are not naturally occurring bacteria and should not be in the food supply.
Superbugs emerge because of overexposure to antibiotics. The drugs are present in the chicken industry despite several big producers having declared their poultry antibiotic-free as long ago as 2015. The drugs are administered for veterinary illnesses, but antibiotics inexplicably also help fatten the birds. Larger chickens garner higher market prices, consumer advocates said.
“Salmonella infantis has a track record for being multi-drug resistant,” said Dr. Susan Donelan, a specialist in infectious diseases at Stony Brook University Hospital and Medical Director of Healthcare Epidemiology.
The strain can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea as the bacteria proliferate in the gastrointestinal tract. Such illnesses decline in about a week, but may lead to protracted illness among those with weak immune systems. Donelan urges consumers to protect themselves.
“Don’t wash raw chicken because splashing water allows droplets to deposit on surfaces, and never use a wooden cutting board,” Donelan said.
Dr. Nancy Bono, an associate professor and chair of Family Medicine at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, said it is important for consumers to protect themselves in supermarkets.
“Wear gloves and bring your own plastic bags,” she said of disposable gloves, and a plastic bag to place chicken in to keep it separate from other items in a shopping cart.
Bono said cross-contamination is common in supermarkets where shoppers touch packaged poultry products — that are often wet — and then put their hands on shopping cart handles and other items in grocery stores.
How to handle raw chicken
Chicken is the most widely consumed source of meat protein in the United States. An estimated 9 billion chickens are slaughtered annually in the United States, and the National Chicken Council estimates that 160 billion servings of chicken are safely eaten daily nationwide. Some steps to prevent food poisoning:
Wash hands and surfaces often
- Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food and before eating.
- Wash your utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water.
- Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw poultry.
- When grocery shopping, keep poultry and its juices from other foods.
- Keep raw poultry separate from other foods in the refrigerator.
Cook to the right temperature
- Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer.
- 165°F is the best temperature for poultry, including ground chicken and turkey.
- Keep your refrigerator below 40°F. Know when to throw food out.
- Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention