MediaNews Editorial

A consumer group made a disturbing discovery recently when it made random purchases of Foster Farms chickens in supermarkets. An outside laboratory conducted tests for salmonella and campylobacter and found fewer than 20 percent of the chickens purchased were free from contamination from one or the other. Talk about an abysmal number.

What’s even more disheartening is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspection procedures and standards for chickens are so inadequate that it’s no wonder companies like Foster Farms have such a poor record.

Consumers must demand a complete overhaul of USDA procedures.

Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, purchased 382 chickens last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet and natural food stores in 22 states and tests were conducted. Foster Farms, based in Livingston, and Tyson chickens were the most contaminated.

According to the consumer group, the USDA, as it turns out, does not even have a standard test for campylobacter bacteria, which is generally transmitted in food or water. The bacteria can be as deadly as salmonella, where infection can spread to the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea, fever and cramps. It boggles the mind that the USDA doesn’t have a test for this.

It makes us wonder why Consumers Union found so many dirty birds and the USDA didn’t?

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said the USDA makes no secret when and where it will conduct its tests. The chicken plant knows where the USDA will take its 50 samples of chickens in 50 days. Unless someone is really fumbling the ball, that plant will be sure it passes inspection.

Ira Brill, a representative for Foster Farms, says his company tests 6,000 birds a year and claims those results are different from Consumers Union.

That hardly makes us feel any safer.

We shouldn’t have to rely on a consumer group to protect the public from food contamination, that is the USDA’s job and it’s not doing it very well. The agency must broaden its range of testing to include campylobacter bacteria, and it should conduct all tests randomly and without prior notification so as to obtain a more accurate number of how many contaminated chickens are hitting our store shelves. In fact, it would be a good idea for the USDA to regularly use the methods employed by Consumers Union and randomly inspect chickens purchased in stores.

And, yes, all of this testing must be transparent and information made available to the public.

The USDA must change its ways of inspection, and companies such as Foster Farms and Tyson need to prove they can do much better with producing cleaner chickens.

Until then, it’s buyer beware. Handle chickens properly, which means washing hands and preparation surfaces with soap and hot water. And, of course, making certain to cook the chicken thoroughly. We must take these steps because it is clear that we can’t count on our government to protect us.