Nova Scotia

Why breaded chicken makes so many people sick, and what's being done about it

Hundreds of Canadians have become sick from raw breaded chicken contaminated with salmonella. Now the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is making a bold move to protect people from both the bacteria and themselves.

'Eventually I started passing blood. I was just too weak'

There have been 13 recalls of frozen breaded chicken due to salmonella contamination since July 2017. (Shebeko/Shutterstock)

It takes a lot to knock down Rodney Humphrey.

The 70-year-old from Lower Prospect, N.S., is tough, hammering out more than 30 years in the construction industry.

So he never expected a chicken burger to take him out of action for almost three months last year.

"I just didn't think I was going to make it," said Humphrey. "You don't know what to do with yourself you're so ill."

The burger was contaminated with salmonella, a troublesome bacteria at the heart of 13 recalls of breaded chicken products like nuggets, strips and burgers since July 2017.

In total, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has investigated 17 national outbreaks linked to raw chicken.

One expert believes there's a lack of motivation on behalf of government, industry and even consumers to try to cut down on the amount of food contaminated by salmonella.

Rodney Humphrey ate a chicken burger contaminated with salmonella. (David Burke/CBC)

"It's just not seen that this is a big enough problem," said Rick Holley, professor emeritus in the department of food and human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba. 

But it was a big problem for Humphrey. 

Salmonella infection, also called salmonellosis, can cause fever, chills, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Humphrey got it all, in spades. 

"As time went by I just started getting worse and worse," he said. "Eventually I started passing blood. I was just too weak and I couldn't control my bowels enough to go see my family doctor."

He wasn't the only one.

As of March 22, 2019, there have been 566 laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella illness connected to recalled breaded chicken.  

Some people who get infected will recover fully after a few days without medical help. Others will have no symptoms at all.

Infants, children, seniors and people with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of serious illness.

There are 87,500 cases of salmonella infection across the country every year, according to the federal government's foodborne illness estimates. Those estimates don't outline how many of those cases could be the result of chicken contaminated with salmonella. 

It was a chicken burger contaminated with salmonella that made Humphrey sick. It took him three months to recover and feel like himself again. (gkrphoto/Shutterstock)

"It is clear from these outbreaks that we have not been successful in applying what we know to solve this problem," said Holley. "It hasn't gone away. Periodically it is evident that it is not getting better. So we've definitely got to rethink the approach that we're taking to control salmonella."

Salmonella has a reputation for being hard to control. It can replicate quickly, survive on numerous surfaces and can be spread by water, animals and humans. 

Chickens can be born with salmonella. They can also pick it up from other chickens or other animals, like rodents.

However, Holley said the main reasons chickens get infected is feed.

He said manure from animals is used as fertilizer on plants. The plants pick up the salmonella through the fertilizer, then the plants are processed into chicken feed. The salmonella survives the process and then is eaten by the chickens, contaminating them. 

Holley said if salmonella was eliminated in the chicken feed it would go a long way to stopping the bacteria's spread. 

Rick Holley is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted photo)

Salmonella does have a weakness — heat.

The bacteria breaks down if chicken is cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 F.

The problem is many Canadians are really bad at that, especially with breaded chicken. Despite warnings on the packaging many people don't cook the chicken thoroughly.

"They may not be preparing it in the same way, and thinking that it probably might be cooked or prepared in a different way," said Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"I think if you just take any chicken product and assume it's contaminated, and you need to handle it carefully and cook it carefully all the way through, then you're better off," said Njoo.

Dr. Howard Njoo is the deputy chief public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada. (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Often young men get salmonella infections because they think they can pop chicken nuggets or other breaded chicken in the microwave for a few seconds and eat it with no ill effects, said Holley. 

Still, Humphrey said he got sick even though his wife, who worked as a cook for 15 years, prepared his chicken burger.

Humphrey believes there should be more inspections to look for salmonella and fines for processors and farms that repeatedly have salmonella outbreaks.

Chicken farms across Canada routinely check for salmonella and clean and disinfect the areas where chickens are kept, according to the group Chicken Farmers of Canada, an organization that represents 2,800 farmers.

Farmers make sure the people who handle the birds are clean and even make some workers change their clothes before they approach the chickens. They also work hard to keep pests away from the chickens.

An example of broiler chicken. (Ivdonata/Shutterstock)

It's much the same in processing plants. The areas are routinely cleaned to try to eliminate any bacteria that might accumulate on surfaces, said Robin Horel, president and CEO of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.

As for issuing fines or charges against processors or farms that have salmonella outbreaks, that's just not in the cards, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 

"It's almost impossible to hold anybody fully accountable for salmonella being in the system," said Lyzette Lamondin, an executive with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

"It's so widespread, and so part of the environment, it's almost impossible to figure out exactly how to get rid of salmonella from the food system," she said.

There are many ways for chickens to get contaminated with salmonella. They can become infected by other chickens, they can pick it up from other animals, in feed, or from surfaces that have salmonella living on it. (David Tadevosian/Shutterstock)

However, the CFIA will try to help a company that has repeated problems with salmonella to fix its problems.

Lamondin said there are more breaded chicken products being recalled in the last few years partially because of improved technology being used to trace salmonella back to its source.

Starting in May 2017, scientists at the national microbiology laboratory have been routinely using whole genome sequencing for better tracking.

Whole genome sequencing allows scientists to precisely identify a particular strain of salmonella by its genetic composition.

They can compare it to a chicken product to see if it has the same salmonella strain. If it matches, a recall for that product is issued, said Lamondin. 

"The irony is it's becoming more visible," Lamondin said. "So food illnesses that have probably always been there are becoming more visible to the public. It's an important point to say that when there is a recall, it is an indicator that the system is working well."           

Salmonella bacteria can live and grow on numerous surfaces and can even be transferred by water. (The Canadian Press)

Despite all the recalls, hundreds of people are still getting sick from breaded chicken contaminated with salmonella. 

That has led officials to search for a way to take the consumer out of the equation. Starting April 1, the CFIA is making all manufacturers reduce salmonella levels to below detectable amounts in breaded chicken products packaged for retail sale. 

That means that in most cases the chicken will be cooked before it's frozen.

It's a move that's costing chicken processors millions as they refit factories and buy massive ovens, said Horel.

He doesn't believe the move will solve the salmonella problem. 

"I've seen a couple of big recalls south of the border of raw products — not raw breaded products, products that are clearly raw and that look raw — they've been recalled." he said, "We've got to continue to work on reduction of these numbers, on consumer education, on proper labelling, on all of those sorts of things. We can't stop that." 

Robin Horel is the president and CEO of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council. (Submitted photo)

As for Rodney Humphrey it doesn't matter what new measures are put in place. He's never touching a chicken burger again. 

"I'm just afraid of going through it again so I'd rather do without them." 

About the Author

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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