Salmonella levels in raw chicken are much higher than previously believed, according to a recent federal study in which almost three out of five birds tested positive for the potentially harmful bacteria.
An independent laboratory test conducted for The Times also found the more than 50% of the locally purchased chicken showed evidence of salmonella.
The findings could be a setback for the poultry industry, which has spent the past several years recovering from publication of 1985 federal estimates that one in three birds were believed to carry the pathogen.
Salmonella is the leading cause of diagnosed food-borne illness in the United States. There are an estimated 2 million to 4 million cases of Salmonellosis each year. The disease also kills about 2,000 people annually, according to federal health statistics.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture report found the incidence of salmonella bacteria on fresh carcasses obtained from five processing plants in Georgia was 57.5%. Georgia was selected for the research project because it is a leading poultry producing state.
Department of Agriculture officials downplayed the study results, saying the salmonella levels discovered are minute and as such, the bacteria's presence poses no health threat if the meat is properly stored, handled, cooked and served.
Nevertheless, earlier this week the federal government approved irradiation, a controversial food processing technique, for use on poultry as a means of controlling salmonella and other bacteria.
USDA's critics argue that salmonella bacteria can multiply under the right conditions, allowing just a few cells to reproduce rapidly. Illness could occur if contaminated raw chicken comes into contact with other foods that are consumed raw.
The sale of raw meats containing bacteria such as salmonella is not illegal. Health officials reason that if the meat is properly refrigerated, handled and cooked, any pathogen present will be destroyed.
California chicken producers have long maintained that the salmonella rate of their chickens is lower than the national average due to the state's drier growing conditions, among other factors. However, 52% of raw chickens purchased by The Times from five Los Angeles County and six Orange County markets in recent days tested positive for salmonella bacteria, with only Zacky Farms and Randall Farms showing no contamination.
The sample was randomly selected from major California chicken suppliers, but not necessarily representative of all poultry products available.
The 21 raw chicken products were tested for The Times by Michelson Laboratories in Commerce using a procedure approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The procedure tests for the presence of, rather than the amount of, salmonella.
Those brands that tested positive included 2 whole Rocky the Range Chickens from Pine Ridge Ranch in Sebastopol; 1 whole Pride Roaster chicken from Pat & Sons Poultry in Los Angeles; 2 whole Tyson Chickens from Springdale, Ark.; and 6 Foster Farms of Livingston products, including whole birds and packaged parts.
Products without evidence of salmonella were 7 Zacky Farms products, including whole birds and packaged parts, 2 Foster Farms whole birds and a package of Randall Farms chicken breasts.
Former Foster Farms executive David M. Theno, who is now a consultant to the firm, said that the incidence found in The Times test was much higher than those being found in the Livingston plant. Nevertheless, he added that consumers must keep in mind that raw chicken products are "to be cooked before consumption, therefore any bacteria present should be killed by the heating process."
"People think that if salmonella is in a product then you're going to automatically get sick. That is not the case," he said. "Whether its 35% or 50% of the chickens that contain salmonella there is nowhere near that many illnesses (as a result)."
Bart Ehman, co-owner of Pine Ridge Ranch, which produces the antibiotic-free Rocky The Range Chicken, said that all poultry producers battle a salmonella problem.
"We've tested ourselves for salmonella and it does occur occasionally," he said. "We're not worse off than anybody else and we do everything to avoid salmonella, we really do. Sometimes, often times, when we test we do not find salmonella. And sometimes we find some."
Corky Bennish, a principal owner of Pat & Sons Poultry in Los Angeles, did not have any comment on the lab results. However, he added that his firm did "everything we can to keep the product wholesome according to USDA standards."
Bob Justice, executive vice president of Tyson, said that his firm's laboratory analyses do not indicate problems with salmonella and that those Tyson chickens purchased by The Times must have "picked up some (bacteria) along the line."
Zacky Farms declined to comment.