Susanne Byerly can laugh now, four years later, talking about how she and her husband were trying to eat healthy food when they bought ground turkey for their spaghetti dinner.
Byerly, along with her husband, Jerry, and their two-year-old, Jack, were on vacation with extended family in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. While buying supplies at a local grocery store, they decided to swap ground beef for poultry because they were watching their weight.
But it was far from funny back in August 2011, when Byerly fell gravely ill after eating the spaghetti. By the time the couple arrived back home in St. Louis, and after more than a week of body aches, chills, fever, vomiting and diarrhea, she was admitted to the hospital.
“When my doctor said the word ‘septic,’ I didn’t know what that meant. But when I Googled it and saw how serious it was, it was so scary,” Byerly said.
Health officials informed Byerly that she was part of an outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg, a particularly virulent strain of the bacterial disease, which ultimately sickened 136 people in 34 states, killing one. The outbreak was linked to a Cargill plant in Arkansas, triggering the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey, one of the largest meat recalls in history.
Attributed largely to health choices, poultry has surpassed beef as American’s top choice for meat. But there’s a down side to this bird boom: heightened chances of getting sick from salmonella poisoning and large-scale outbreaks that require recalls.
In fact, that so-called healthy option of a ground chicken burger is 12 times more likely than a hamburger to be contaminated by salmonella.
Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show that more than 20 percent of ground turkey and nearly 40 percent of ground chicken sent to grocery stores is contaminated with salmonella. Hamburger is just 3.3 percent positive for salmonella.
Cut-up chicken parts sold separately from whole birds, like breasts and wings, are also showing up potentially poisonous: at least 24 percent of chicken parts tested positive for salmonella, according to a USDA study. As much as 54 percent of chicken necks, 33 percent of chicken wings, and 27 percent of chicken breasts were contaminated, the study said.
As more and more consumers move away from buying whole chickens – just 11 percent of poultry sales include the entire bird – the government has failed to inspect ground poultry and poultry parts. The first federally mandated inspections on processed poultry began March 25.
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines actually allow nearly half of all ground poultry products to test positive for salmonella. For chicken and turkey parts, it’s worse: there is currently no “allowed standard” for salmonella contamination, so 100 percent of the breasts, wings, thighs and other processed parts could show up in grocery stores already contaminated.
“We eat things we think are safe, we give them to our children,” Byerly said. “But practices like that could kill people. It would be like putting an explosive device in your food, basically. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Food safety regulators do recognize the massive amount of salmonella-tainted poultry as a problem. The USDA has a plan to lower contamination levels, which the agency hopes will reduce salmonella illnesses by 30 percent. There’s still no date for implementation of the plan and regulators admit that it will be impossible for roughly 60 percent of processors to meet the new standards during the first year of implementation.
"Currently, USDA is placing tighter salmonella standards on the poultry industry than ever before to target not just some, but all strains of salmonella,” said Cathy Cochran, a USDA spokeswoman.
The USDA’s plan requires companies to perform additional testing, place inspectors in more strategic locations in processing plants, and for the first time mandates the testing of poultry parts such as breasts and wings instead of whole birds, Cochran said.
The chicken industry, however, has asked for a delay in the USDA’s plan, which is going at “warp speed,” said Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
“The fact is that raw chicken is not sterile,” Super said. “Any raw agricultural product – whether it is fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or poultry – it’s susceptible to naturally-occurring bacteria that could make someone sick if the product is improperly cooked or handled.”
There are very low levels of salmonella found in whole birds, he said. Americans eat a massive amount chicken – as much as 160 million servings a day – and the vast majority do not result in illness, Super said.
Consumers have food safety responsibility, he continued, and must cook poultry to 165 degrees to kill any bacteria, properly refrigerate meat and be careful not to cross-contaminate other food.
Salmonella is a fecal bacteria and a common culprit of food-borne illness, infecting more than a million people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But many health officials are growing concerned about more severe strains, like the salmonella Heidelberg contracted by Byerly. These are listed by the CDC as a serious threat to human health because they are resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics.
“The strains of salmonella that are showing up on these chickens aren’t the ones our grandmother knew about,” Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told Frontline in its documentary, “The Trouble With Chicken.”
“They are tougher, stronger and many of them are antibiotic resistant,” DeWaal said.
Salmonella Heidelberg was also blamed for a huge outbreak first reported in 2013 that ultimately sickened 634 people in 29 states. The contamination was traced back to Foster Farms, a California company that came under heavy criticism for refusing to recall any chicken for nearly nine months.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has no authority to make a recall, officials said. The USDA could only request a recall, and only after it had conclusive evidence that the pathogen was found at Foster Farms.
“I think the one thing that is clear, is that in terms of salmonella in poultry we have a regulatory failure,” said Ryan Osterholm, a Minnesota attorney who specializes in food poisoning cases.
“You cannot look at what happened with Foster Farms and tell anyone with a straight face from a regulatory standpoint that that was working,” he said. “That we had an outbreak, we knew we had an outbreak and there’s nothing the government can do about it. How can you say that that works?”
That Foster Farms eventually issued a voluntary recall did little to placate critics. The long delay, along with news of the other outbreaks, prompted calls for the USDA to label salmonella an “adulterant,” which would give the agency the authority to order a recall of salmonella-tainted meat.
The agency designated E. coli an adulterant some 20 years ago after an outbreak at fast-food chain Jack in the Box, which sickened hundreds and killed four children. Since that decision, the CDC says the rate of E. coli illnesses has been cut in half.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed suit against the USDA for failing to respond to its petition seeking the new designation for certain strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella, including Heidelberg.
After Byerly and others became sick, Cargill voluntarily recalled the 36 million pounds of ground turkey, stopped production in the Arkansas plant where it was found and initiated a host of cleaning and monitoring programs. A trade publication said at the time that Cargill had the “most aggressive Salmonella monitoring and testing” program in the poultry industry.
Byerly ultimately recovered and sued Cargill, which agreed to a confidential settlement. Four years later, she says she’s glad everything turned out OK, especially because her two-year-old son and her niece didn’t get sick from the contaminated ground turkey.
“I’m grateful that it’s me that got sick,” Byerly said. “We had two very small children at that table who could have eaten the ground turkey and gotten sick and what would have happened to them?”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of chicken and turkey parts contaminated with salmonella. At least 24 percent of chicken parts tested positive for salmonella, according to USDA studies.