Monday, June 15, 2009

CDC Report Ruffles Poultry Industry Feathers

June 15, 2009

The National Chicken Council (NCC) reacted harshly last Friday to CDC's report on Foodborne Disease Outbreaks that were recorded in 2006, claiming that the report presented "...a misleading picture of the safety of poultry."

According to CDC, 48 US states reported a total of 1,270 foodborne disease outbreaks in 2006. Eleven of the outbreaks were multistate, including the Salmonella outbreak that was caused by ConAgra's contaminated peanut butter.

The item that got the NCC's goat, though, was CDC's report of a Clostridium perfringens outbreak – traced to contaminated, baked chicken – that caused 741 illnesses in a prison population. The Council claims that the illnesses from this unusual outbreak skewed the apparent frequency of foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated poultry. Does the Chicken Council have a valid beef?

In 2006, poultry accounted for 21% of the reported cases of foodborne disease. Had the prison outbreak been excluded, the percentage would have fallen to 10.9%. Of course, a similar case would then have to be made for excluding the unprecedented – and equally large – peanut butter outbreak, which sickened 715 people. That outbreak swelled to fruits/nuts category to 1,021 cases, or 16% of the total.

Raw poultry has its contamination issues, notably, Salmonella and Campylobacter. But Clostridium perfringens isn't one of them. The NCC would have been wiser to point out that the prison outbreak likely had little or nothing to do with contaminated raw poultry. Rather, Clostridium perfringens outbreaks typically are caused by mishandling cooked foods – usually through poor temperature control during cooling, storage or display of the cooked foods.

As CDC makes clear in its report, it's the nature of the agency's foodborne disease surveillance process that the annual numbers are easily skewed by individual large outbreaks – whether due to contaminated dairy products, meats, produce or poultry.

Instead of taking potshots at the messenger, the National Chicken Council should help spread the food safety message.

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