While working on an assignment focusing on reducing/eradicating Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry, a spokesperson for a major US chicken company who requested anonymity issued an interesting response when asked how well her company’s in-plant interventions/hurdle technologies are working in terms of log kill.

She reminded me that log kill is generally a term used in research where a known number of bacteria (or virus, etc.), usually with some sort of marker to differentiate from normal bacteria present, is inoculated onto a sample and then subjected to the treatment in question. The sample is then tested and the number found is compared to the number inoculated. Generally, a 2-log or greater difference in the number is considered significant, she said.

She added that currently, her company does not measure in terms of log kill. There are inherent problems with determining what, if any, sample[s] are indicative of the number or presence of microbes presented to a plant through the incoming chickens, she said.

“Live chickens are living, breathing creatures and as such are a source of significant numbers of microbes,” she added. “Indeed, like us, the skin, feathers, GI tract, respiratory tract and reproductive tract contain large numbers microbes. While some would like to think this can be measured, say in the field or on the truck, no accurate method to determine the ‘incoming load’ of microbes has been found. [Will testing include] a swab of the truck, a sample from the chicken’s digestive tract and a whole bird? And is that sample going to representative of all the other birds? Will it be the same the next day? The questions are endless and the answers are difficult to evaluate.”

She went on to say her company’s processing plants focus efforts on providing the most sanitary methods possible in processing the chickens. Control of the potential growth of any microbes is done through the use of time and temperature parameters that will limit or retard microbial growth, she said.

But she reminded me that the products being produced are raw, and like any other raw product (vegetables, fruit, cheese as well as other meats), they will contain microbes (including Salmonella). “It is for this reason the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service established a Salmonella and Campylobacter Performance Standard, and as such, has acknowledged that these microbes may be present on raw product,” she said.

Raw products have not been subjected a “kill step”, i.e. cooking, and must be handled in a safe manner. Regardless of how “clean” a product is when it is packaged, if it is not treated properly, bacteria will have the opportunity to proliferate, she added.

When asked if her company is using new ingredients to fight these pathogens, she relayed that an ingredient would have to be declared on the label. “This is of particularly problematic if there are any 100-percent Natural or similar claims,” she added. “However, in general, the industry is constantly evaluating new technologies and processing advances that will not affect the chicken so that it remains 100-percent Natural.”

In switching gears to other poultry-related issues, Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., National Chicken Council vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, explained that several technologies and pre-requisite programs for recirculation and water reuse have been introduced and implemented in recent years. “This has been driven by the need to conserve water resources, reduce effluents and improve wastewater treatment, which has benefitted industry, municipalities and public and general good stewardship of the environment.”

There are also some processes and technologies chicken plants use now that were not available only a decade ago, which help to improve food-quality defects in birds. “There are a couple technologies that scan for bone fragments in product [for example, boneless breast portions],” she said. “Genetics and bird health have also been improved, as well as improvements in bird welfare. Improved boning-line equipment and layouts adapted by industry has increased the operators’ ability to quickly identify defects and safely trim away defect areas prior to finished packaging. This has improved product quality and product consistency available to consumers.”

The Bottom line: Many US chicken plants continue making investments in new processes and technologies that improve food safety and overall quality of their final product. Perhaps most important when it comes to enhancing quality and food safety, Peterson reminded me that customer standards for both are frequently higher than those standards required by USDA and new processes and technologies can help industry achieve these goals.

(For more information on industry’s battle to enhance poultry safety, read the feature on this topic in the January issue of Meat&Poultry.)