Sam and Ella Don’t Do Pastured

Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Washington D.C. that advocates clean food for the consumer, has released the names of 106 chicken plants that failed to meet the USDA standards for acceptable levels of salmonella between 1998 and 2005. The data, which was collected via the Freedom of Information Act, also reveals that incidence of salmonella has risen over the past two years.

Additionally, a recent change in policy could allow those plants with high contamination levels to escape testing for up to two years. On June 29 of this year, the USDA stated that plants with two consecutive testing periods with contamination rates “at or below half the acceptable number of positive samples” of salmonella will likely not be visited by food-safety inspectors for 12 to 24 months. That “acceptable number,” incidentally, varies by product. For broiler chickens, which are the focus of this data, the acceptable level of salmonella contamination is 23.5%, whereas ground turkey is at a maximum of 54.7%.

Food and Water Watch’s analysis shows that 22 of the plants which failed to meet USDA standards would not have been tested as a result of the delay.

This information, despite causing my brain to hurt (as is so often the case when one wants to know something about one’s food) made me wonder about this thing called salmonella. What is it? How does it get transmitted to the chickens? Does it matter if it’s clean food or from a CAFO? What happens when you do get it?

Salmonella is a bacteria. According to, a website from researchers at the Center for Microbial Sciences at San Diego State University, classification of the many strains of Salmonella can be difficult even for experts. However, the strain that is responsible for food poisoning is from the strain Salmonella enterica, which means “of the intestine.” Of this group, Salmonella enteritidis has become the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S. over the last 20 years.99c0678.jpg

When Salmonella is ingested, it passes through the stomach and binds to the intestine. From here, it potentially gains access to our insides — like our liver and spleen — and can cause problems with our immune systems and can even be passed back to the intestine from our liver and start all over again.

Usually, most of the bacteria is expelled from the intestine and stomach via diarrhea and projectile vomiting. Sweet.

The best way to avoid the bacteria? Cook your food thoroughly, according to the USDA, which recently lowered the recommended temperature for safely cooked poultry.

The site states that S. enteritidus is “particularly adept at infecting chicken flocks without causing visible disease, and spreading from hen to hen rapidly.” Because of the close-quarter, sitting-in-poop opportunities that factory farming provides, many people point the finger at CAFOs for the rise and spread of the disease.

Unsurprisingly, “many people” does not include the USDA, which continually asserts that “free-range” and/or “organic” chicken shows no “discernible difference” in levels of salmonella. In fact, according to research paid for by the United States government, it’s about the same as “conventionally produced” — that is, factory-farmed — chicken.

Well, yeah. That’s because USDA’s definition of “free-range” and “organic” chickens are raised and killed using the same methods as industrial farming. Packed tightly in air-conditioned barns by the hundred-thousands? Check. Sitting in their own (and their neighbors’) potentially infected manure all day long? Check. Processed together and then shipped all over the country? Check.

So how about our pastured chickens, who have way more room and are routinely moved away from their pathogens? Besides the fact that they enjoy a more humane existence, and offer more nutritional value, as well as a yummier taste, does pasturing and slaughtering them on the farm make a difference when it comes to salmonella?

According to this immensely readable article by pastoral farming guru Joel Salatin, it makes all the difference in the world. He writes:

So far, not one case of food-borne pathogens has been reported among the thousands of pastured poultry producers, many of whom have voluntarily had their birds analyzed. Routinely, these home-dressed birds, which have not been treated with chlorine to disinfect them, show numbers far below industry comparisons. At Polyface, we even tested our manure and found that it contained no salmonella.

There is definitely some fun (and value) in writing letters to your government representatives regarding organizations like the USDA, and joining groups that advocate changes in policy. But why mess with all that when you can simply use that time to find a food source that you can trust? It’s better for you, and a lot more rewarding.

3 Responsesto “Sam and Ella Don’t Do Pastured”

  1. Miss Steak says:

    Great post! I wouldn’t mind knowing … does anyone have a good name (and perhaps sample letter) of the right person to write to advocating pastured chix?

  2. Man of La Muncha says:

    I’m not sure that I should laugh at this post, but your comment on “projectile vomiting” made me laugh aloud.

    One of the interesting claims about pastured chickens that I’ve heard from farmers is that they have better immune systems because they are allowed to go outdoors. Other animals have been reported as having strong immune systems in “natural” settings compared to animals kept in labs (the BBC reported on a comparison of wild rats and lab rats).

    Whenever I read about the biosecure henhouses, I can’t help but think of the fear that these farmers have that someone will sneeze and cause their flock to drop dead. That’s a slight exaggeration, but the measures taken to protect flocks show that they aren’t concerned about an bio-attack on their chickens as much as they are about someone tracking in an infection.

  3. Omniwhore says:

    MS – Thanky! I did find an “I Care” form letter/card at The Sustainable Table that one can give to their grocer or leave on the table at restaurants, advocating natural, pastured, local, organic food. Phew! Do we have a new name for our food yet? Is this gonna be part of the package of the Omnivore’s Dilemma?

    MoLM – Projectile vomiting is one of those things that is just funny. Only in writing of course.

    That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of the stronger immune systems of pastured chickens — it would be fascinating to learn more about that. Fascinating in a kind of scary, what-the-fuck-have-we-been-eating kind of way. But ethicureans are kind of into that, right?

    I agree that there seems to be less concern for the consumer (or the chickens) than there is for getting caught as the source of infection — I think that has a lot to do with how alienated we’ve become from our communities. If you don’t know people who are buying your food, why should you suffer from a bad conscience for poisoning them? The more nameless and faceless we become, the more dispensible we are.