Published on 05/29/03

Scientist helping zap Salmonella in poultry plants

By Brooke Hatfield
University of Georgia

Salmonella contamination can cause major problems in Georgia poultry plants. But one scientist's efforts have prevented several plant shutdowns by helping reduce the level of bacteria in plants.

"The biggest problem I hear from the industry is 'I can't get my arms around the Salmonella issue,'" said Scott Russell, a poultry scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Salmonella is a ubiquitous organism," he said. "It can be found in the environment, so it can be transferred to chickens easily."

Poultry problems are Georgia problems

Any problem connected to the poultry industry is a Georgia problem. Poultry is the state's biggest agricultural industry, with more than $13 billion in annual farm income. Failure to meet federal Salmonella standards can cause plant shutdowns, resulting in employee layoffs.

With 750 to 1,200 workers per plant, such layoffs would cost poultry plants half a million dollars a day in sales, Russell said. To the workers, the income loss could be devastating.

And if a plant is shut down, what happens to the live chickens that are en route? If a processing plant is shut down because of excessive Salmonella levels, animal welfare problems surface, especially in the summer.

Preventing plant shutdowns

This year, Russell has helped prevent shutdowns at five major poultry processing companies.

The nature of poultry processing adds to the salmonella problem. Since most of the chicken is uncooked, it's possible for bacteria in the bird to survive.

"There will always be bacteria when you are dealing with raw poultry products," Russell said. "But (U.S. Department of Agriculture) regulations dictate how meat plants follow rules in terms of food safety."

The Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system requires poultry plants to keep Salmonella levels on chicken carcasses below 23.5 percent.

That percentage may sound high. "Actually, it's really low when you look at it holistically," Russell said. "We're never going to get it to zero."

It just takes one cell

A carcass needs to have only one Salmonella cell to test positive for Salmonella.

"The average number of Salmonella cells on a positive carcass is four to five and almost always less than 30," Russell said.

The USDA tests carcasses for Salmonella for 51 days. If a plant fails, it has 30 days to fix the problem before testing resumes. The testing process outlined by HACCP allows for three strikes before a plant is shut down.

"If they fail the third series, that's when they're in serious trouble," Russell said. Once a plant gets a third strike, it must be shut down and reevaluated before retesting can resume.

When the USDA realizes there's a problem in a Georgia plant, they call Russell, a poultry production and processing microbiologist. He's been helping poultry plants reduce pathogen levels since 1997.

Salmonella presents a complex problem. There's no one way to completely eliminate it. Russell takes what he calls a "multihurdle approach." He attacks the bacteria from many points.

"The Salmonella problem must be approached in the field, as well as in eggs and breeder chickens," he said. "During hatching and grow-out, flies must be controlled, and various points in the plant must be monitored and controlled."

Another poultry processing factor makes it hard to control Salmonella.

Treating chicken is different from beef and pork

"With beef and pork, we remove the hide," Russell said. "With poultry, the skin (which has been exposed to the environment) is what's being tested."

To further protect themselves and their families, consumers must learn to deal with raw poultry safely, too.

"They need to handle it properly," Russell said. "Any surface that raw chicken has contacted should be cleaned. And people should be sure to wash their hands thoroughly before and after handling raw chicken."

Brooke Hatfield is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.