It is not against the law to sell raw chicken with salmonella or campylobacter. Regulators instead have placed the responsibility on consumers to understand the importance of cooking thoroughly and avoiding cross-contamination of other foods. A USDA official said the department’s consumer education efforts are vigorous and ongoing.
But the government’s efforts have failed to reduce the number of salmonella infections in 15 years, even as other food-borne illnesses have dropped.
Salmonella, which doesn’t discriminate between small and large farms, is a pathogen sometimes found in the intestinal tracts of birds and other animals. On chicken farms, it can spread from bird to bird or can be introduced by wild animals. During slaughter and processing, salmonella on one chicken can contaminate many more.
Salmonella is invisible, odorless and tasteless, so even the most careful farmers might not know their chicken carries the pathogen, unless they test for it.
The same goes for campylobacter, which is even more prevalent in chickens. The pathogen is one of the leading bacterial causes of diarrhea in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Microbac also found salmonella or campylobacter in chicken parts sold by another local vendor and two grocery chains a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
Altogether, five out of seven markets and grocery stores tested positive for campylobacter, and two of the five also tested positive for salmonella. It demonstrates how easy it is to find pathogens — no matter which market or grocery store a consumer patronizes.
In 2009, an annual Food and Drug Administration retail meat study found 21 percent of chicken breasts contaminated with salmonella and 44 percent with campylobacter.
The findings come at a time of increased federal concern over food-borne infections linked to the two pathogens, which the CDC says are two of the most commonly reported causes of food-borne illness.
A 2011 CDC study estimated that 1.8 million people are sickened, 27,000 are hospitalized and 400 die each year from both pathogens combined.
Because J&L Green, the Virginia farm selling chickens at the USDA market, operates under the exemption for small farms, no government inspector had looked at the way Jordan Green and his wife, Laura, raise and slaughter chickens, Green said. The USDA generally reviews exempt operations only if it receives a complaint.
Farmers decide whether they want to operate under an exemption from inspections. They do not, however, have to notify the USDA that they have claimed an exemption. The agency does not keep track of exemptions. However, state governments can have their own rules. Virginia, for example, requires farmers to fill out a two-page application, which Green said he did not know about but has now submitted. He also has paid for his own salmonella tests.
When the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service accepted J&L Green into its farmers market this year, officials failed to catch that he was not registered for the Virginia exemption he claimed and that he was breaking federal and state rules by transporting exempted poultry across state lines for sale.
The farmers market manager, Velma Lakins, said she was aware that J&L Green Farm labeled its chicken as exempt. She said she thought that exempted chicken could be transported across state lines, as did two regional USDA officials interviewed by News21.
Also at the USDA market, C&T Produce of Fredericksburg, another vendor, was observed selling unrefrigerated eggs, even though egg cartons bore USDA-mandated labels stating that they should be refrigerated.
Lakins said in an interview that she saw the eggs in coolers with ice packs. But Craig DeBernard, who co-owns C&T with his wife, Tracy, said he had not known the eggs had to be refrigerated and did not do so. C&T has stopped selling eggs at farmers markets during hot summer months and will sell them in an iced cooler in the fall.
Esther French, Mattea Kramer and Maggie Clark are fellows with News21, a university journalism program run in cooperation with the Carnegie Corp. and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.