On Jan. 10, a news release was issued by Tyson Foods, Inc. recalling almost 34,000 pounds of chicken. That’s a lot of chicken. If you’d like a visual, think of four adult elephants on a truck scale. That’s about how much 34,000 pounds equals.
Over the course of 2013, though, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) recalled 293,116 pounds of meat, pork, and chicken. Reasons for these recalls included the following: “possible salmonella contamination, possible E. coli contamination, may contain plastic, potential listeria monocytogenes contamination, may contain foreign materials, and possible foreign matter contamination.” Remember, this figure doesn’t include the meat, pork, or chicken recalls for violations like misbranding, lack of inspection, or containing undeclared allergens, and it doesn’t include recalls on fruit, vegetables, and other types of food. So, in the larger scheme of things, 34,000 pounds doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
On the other hand, it could’ve been a big deal. This particular strain of the disease, Salmonella Heidelberg, is resistant to several antibiotics. If you combine that with the mondo poundage of infected chicken in this outbreak, it definitely could’ve been a problem. An average portion of chicken is 3-4 ounces, which means that potentially there were 136,000 portions of salmonella-infected, mechanically separated, “for institutional use” chicken floating around. But then again, only seven people at the institution in question, a Tennessee correctional facility, got ill. It seems the lid’s being kept on which correctional facility the outbreak occurred, so determining how many people actually ate the chicken is difficult, but for comparison’s sake the largest prison in the U.S. has 5000 inmates.
In this particular outbreak, Tyson recalled their product. However, that’s not always how situations like this go down. Sometimes food manufacturers and distributors aren’t as cooperative. A food recall is always voluntary, but ultimately the FSIS can seize products if companies are dragging their feet on issuing one. If the culprit of an outbreak is highly suspected but can’t be pinned down beyond a shadow of a doubt, the FSIS will only issue a Public Health Alert. This scenario happened last year when two outbreaks (July and December) infected a total of 550 people with salmonella. Investigators indicated but apparently didn’t definitively prove that in both cases Foster Farms brand chicken was the culprit. A Public Health Alert was issued, but Foster Farms never recalled their chicken.
It’s a good thing that Tyson Foods, Inc. was so forthright about recalling their product. Though it isn’t like any poultry manufacturer doesn’t need a positive public image, it may be that Tyson needs it just a little more. The company supplies chicken to all the Yum! Brands chains, which aren’t limited to but include KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. A salmonella outbreak at just one of those places would be a publicity horror. Fast food joints aren’t exactly media darlings to begin with, so it’s not hard to envisions how, for example, a salmonella outbreak at a McDonald’s could get Tyson dropped. With enough public pressure, some of the other Yum! chains might follow McDonald’s lead. Tyson’s major accounts could go down like dominoes.
That’s not to say Tyson is trying to uphold a squeaky-clean image. They’ve been accused (and convicted) of all the usual Big Ag violations: environmental felonies, price manipulation, racketeering, undisclosed use of antibiotics (hence the antibiotic-resistant salmonella). And of course there are the requisite undercover videos posted on YouTube revealing–to whomever has the stomach to watch them–the shocking conditions the animals are forced to suffer and the sadistic acts perpetrated on them by many Tyson employees.
It’s unfortunate, but becoming a vegetarian won’t protect you from foodborne illnesses. People have gotten salmonella infections from–among other food items–peanut butter, cucumbers, tahini, pine nuts, papayas, and sprouts. And let’s not even get into all the E. Coli outbreaks involving fruits and vegetables. When you look at these outbreaks, though, the chain of custody always leads back to the animal agribusiness.
By Donna Westlund