Industry officials, who saw a 5% decline in chicken sales after release of the government's 1985 study, attribute the increase in salmonella levels in the latest study to the use of more sensitive laboratory detection methods and not to a rise in the contaminant's presence in the nation's broiler flock.
Even so, critics of the USDA say the findings indicate the agency is doing little or nothing to reduce the incidence of salmonella in chicken.
"The USDA policy on controlling bacterial contamination (in chicken) is a failure," said Rodney E. Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a Washington-based consumer group.
"They have been unable to get the industry to address the problems of contamination and have given up," Leonard said. "The only thing USDA can do is find something (irradiation) that can treat the chickens after they leave the plant."
The recent study was done by Roy C. Blankenship, research leader of the poultry microbiological safety unit at the USDA's Agriculture Research Service in Athens, Ga. Blankenship said his data will appear in the August issue of Poultry Science Journal.
Blankenship was studying a chlorine washing technique to rid birds of fecal contamination. He studied 1,500 chickens from five Georgia processors and in the course of the study determined that salmonella was present in 57.5% of the birds.
"People should be aware that there is a hazard, but there are a lot of other hazards in life and you do things to avoid them," he said. "The emphasis should be on good food handling practices in the kitchen."
Bill Roenigk, spokesman for the National Broiler Council, which represents 90% of the nation's chicken producers, said: "The methods (Blankenship) used were more sensitive than previous ones. He could pick up several (microscopic) cells of salmonella per carcass. While salmonella would be present, a few cells will not make you ill."
Some industry observers questioned whether the five processing plants in the Blankenship study were state-of-the-art facilities. However, Blankenship said that the plants were well-managed, modern facilities operating within the regulations established by the USDA and under the agency's supervision.
Even so, a top USDA official said Blankenship's results are not cause for alarm.
"(Some critics) say that because 57% of the chickens had at least one salmonella organism per carcass that this has public health consequences. It does not," said Lester Crawford, director of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "If we find just one organism, then (the entire bird) is classified as positive for salmonella. But I don't want anyone to think you can get sick from that. . . . Even if you ate raw chicken that contained one salmonella cell, it wouldn't make you sick."
Crawford said health officials believe as many as 500,000 salmonella cells are required to make a healthy person ill. However, the number needed to cause \o7 Salmonellosis \f7 declines, sometimes dramatically, for those in the high-risk groups including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems such as cancer or AIDS patients, for whom the disease can be fatal.
\o7 Salmonellosis \f7 can cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, fever, abdominal pains, headaches and vomiting.
Consumers can protect themselves from potential salmonella bacteria by cooking chicken thoroughly, or to an internal temperature of between 175 degrees and 180 degrees. Raw chicken should be handled carefully so it does not come into contact with other foods to be consumed uncooked, such as salad ingredients.
All surfaces--cutting boards, knives, containers that come in contact with raw chicken should be thoroughly cleansed with hot water and soap after use. Packaged chicken stored in the refrigerator should be placed on a plate or container so that none of the product's fluid drips onto other items creating a phenomena known as cross-contamination.