- Poultry is a popularly consumed meat in the American diet, where chicken has the highest annual consumption.
- From 1998 to 2012, 25% of foodborne illness outbreaks were attributed to poultry; improper handling and inadequate cooking have been identified as key factors contributing to outbreaks.
- Broilers make up most of commercial chicken production with time from conception to consumption taking less than 13 weeks,
- Top broiler-producing states are Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina and top turkey-producing states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia.
- Per year average consumption of poultry meat in the U.S. equals 112 pounds.
- Poultry is a valuable source of complete protein, selenium, phosphorus, and the B complex vitamins.
Poultry is defined as domesticated fowl, such as chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks, primarily raised for the production of meat and eggs. The United States is the largest poultry producer in the world, producing roughly 64 billion pounds of poultry meat each year, and is the second largest exporter of poultry meat behind Brazil. The U.S. has comparably low levels of poultry imports, valued at approximately $200 million each year. In comparison, the nation-wide poultry production during 2018 was valued at greater than $35 billion
The poultry industry today is vertically-integrated, meaning that multiple production stages have been combined in order for production to be as efficient as possible. Subsequently, less man hours, feed, growth periods, space, and equipment are necessary to produce a market broiler chicken. This organization for efficiency has allowed for the poultry industry to rise to one of the largest in the agricultural sector. In the mid-1900s, feed mills, hatcheries, farms, and processing were each separate processes during chicken production. The integration of these production stages began in the 1950s and was common practice by the 1960s, allowing for advances in biological and production technologies to improve efficiency of broiler production. As the industry continued to grow, chicken consumption surpassed pork consumption in 1985 and beef consumption in 1992. By 1998, the USDA improved food safety standard in slaughterhouses by requiring the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program to be enacted in all poultry facilities.
Over the past decade, there have been numerous foodborne outbreaks associated with both poultry products and live poultry, such as backyard chickens. These local and multi-state outbreaks associated with poultry have been widely attributed to contamination with one or more strains of Salmonella. Salmonellosis is characterized by diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and dehydration.
2011 Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg – Ground Turkey
Later in 2011, a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections was reported across 34 states. A total of 136 people were infected with the outbreak strain, which led to 37 hospitalizations and one reported death. The outbreak investigation indicated ground turkey as likely source of the outbreak, where over half of the interviewed ill people reported consuming ground turkey. Samples of strain revealed that the strain was multidrug resistant to several common antibiotics and linked the strain to retail sample from Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, a large manufacturer of turkey products. Following a USDA public health alert for frozen and fresh ground turkey products, Cargill recalled approximately 36 million pounds of turkey products that were at risk of contamination with Salmonella Heidelberg.
2011 Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg – Kosher Broiled Chicken Liver
From April to November 2011, kosher broiled chicken livers were associated with a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections, with cases in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Minnesota. Throughout these six states, a total of 190 people were infected, with 20 hospitalizations and no reported deaths. Epidemiologic investigation traced the infections to eating kosher broiled chicken liver from the Schreiber Processing Corporation. Notably, the chicken liver products appear to packaged as ready-to-eat, when they are truly only partially cooked and require further cooking before consumption. Schreiber Processing Corporation subsequently recalled their kosher broiled chicken liver products.
2013 Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg – Foster Farms Chicken
Between March 2013 and July 2014, 634 people from 29 states were infected with different strains of Salmonella Heidelberg. Although no deaths were reported, approximately 38% of those infected were hospitalized and 15% of ill persons developed blood infections. Raising further concern, 65% of the isolates were drug resistant, resistant to one or more antibiotics. After an extensive investigation the source was determined to be retail packages of chicken produced by the brand Foster Farms. Further investigation in Foster Farms production facilities found several strains of Salmonella Heidelberg at three separate facilities in California; responding to these findings, Foster Farms implemented changes to their slaughtering and processing practices as corrective actions in their establishments. Since these interventions, these Foster Farms facilities have reduced the prevalence of Salmonella to less than 5%.
2014 Outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg – Tyson Foods Chicken
Another outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg occurred in late 2013 and early 2014. Nine people were infected, all of the individuals were inmates at a correctional facility. The source was determined to be mechanically separated chicken produced by Tyson Foods. On January 10, 2014, a recall was initiated of 33,840 pounds of product that may have been contaminated. The recalled products were never available for purchase in retail stores.
2015 Four Outbreaks of Salmonella Infections – Backyard Poultry
In early 2015, four outbreaks of Salmonella infections occurred across 43 states which all linked to contact with live poultry. Between the four outbreak, 252 people were infected and 63 hospitalizations occurred. Interviews with ill people found that many had been in contact with live poultry in the week before falling ill, many of which reported purchasing live poultry from feed supply stores, co-ops, and hatcheries. Several outbreak strains were identified for these outbreaks, including Salmonella Enteritidis, Salmonella Hadar, Salmonella Indiana, and Salmonella Muenchen. No single source of outbreaks was identified. Backyard flock owners and stores selling live poultry should be aware of the risk of acquiring Salmonella or other pathogens from their poultry.
2015 Outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis – Barber Foods Chicken Entrees
Two separate outbreaks Salmonella Enteritidis occurred in raw, frozen chicken entrees in July 2015. A total of 15 people were infected by this outbreak across the Midwest and Northeastern regions of the U.S., leading to 4 hospitalizations. Investigation into the outbreak indicated the sources to likely be raw, frozen, stuffed, and breaded chicken products from Barber Foods. Further antibiotic resistance testing revealed the outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis to be resistant to both ampicillin and tetracycline. Consequently, a recall was issued for 1.7 million pounds of frozen items from Barber Foods.
2015 Outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis – Aspen Foods Chicken Entrees
A second outbreak of Salmonella Enteriditis was also linked to raw, frozen chicken entrees in July 2015, but is not associated with the Barber Foods outbreak. Five individuals in Minnesota were infected with Salmonella Enteriditis, two of which were hospitalized. Raw, frozen chicken entrees from Aspen Foods were identified as the source of the outbreak, leading to Aspen Foods recalling 1.9 million pounds of products that may have been contaminated. While both outbreaks are over, consumers should be advised of the longer shelf life of frozen products and to check their freezers for recalled products.
2018 Outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium – Chicken Salad
In January of 2018, a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium affected eight states and a total of 265 people. These cases spread across the Midwest and lead to 94 hospitalizations and one reported death. Evidence and traceback of the outbreak strain identified a chicken salad product by the company Triple T Specialty Meats, Inc were the source of contamination. Commonly sold at Fareway grocery stores, the chain issued that all sales of the product to stop at their stores. Triple T Specialty Meat, Inc later recalled all chicken salad products
2018 Outbreak of Salmonella Infantis – Chicken
Over a yearlong period from January 2018 to January 2019, 129 people were infected with a strain of Salmonella Infantis across 32 states. Of the 129 ill people, 25 reported hospitalization and one death was reported. Interviews will ill people revealed that a majority had consumed various types and brands of chicken before getting ill. Additionally, some individuals reported being in contact with live chickens and chicken pet food. Further investigation lead to sampling chickens at 76 different slaughtering and processing facilities, where the outbreak strain was matched to collected samples. Together, these data confirmed live and raw chicken products as the source of the outbreak, however no single supplier was identified.
2019 Outbreak of Salmonella Reading – Ground Turkey
Between November 2017 and April 2019, 358 people were infected with the outbreak strain Salmonella Reading. This multistate outbreak spread across 42 states, leading to a total of 133 hospitalizations and one reported death. Investigation into the outbreak found through interviews that 65% of ill people reported eating or preparing raw turkey products prior to becoming ill, while some additionally reported handling raw ground turkey pet food and working at turkey raising facilities. Samples from homes of ill people matched Salmonella strains from Jennie-O turkey and canned pet food to the outbreak strain. Further investigation linked the outbreak to a total of 24 slaughtering facilities and processing facilities. In response to the outbreak, Jennie-O recalled ground turkey products, Raws for Paws and Woody’s Pet Food Deli recalled raw turkey pet food.
There are three production phases associated with poultry are: breeding flocks, laying hens, and broilers, turkeys, and ducks.
Chicken sold at retail establishments comes from commercial chicken and turkey operations. Broiler chickens refers to those birds raised for meat, which are primarily produced in the southern and southeastern parts of the U. S. Across the country, there are approximately 25,000 contracted farms that are responsible for 95% of broiler chicken production. The U.S. is the largest producer of broilers and second leading exporter of broilers. Turkeys are produced near the corn belt and in North Carolina. Turkey production in the U.S. surpasses that of other countries and the U.S. is only second to Israel in per capita turkey consumption.
In the United States, most broiler production is under contract with a broiler processor who is responsible for providing the chicks, feed, and veterinary supplies to the grower at a grow-out farm. The grower maintains housing for the broilers, including systems for heating, cooling, feeding, and watering, in addition to supplying the labor force for raising the birds. The whole house is heated using brooder units, which each have rings placed around them. The birds are placed into the brooder rings and introduced to the watering and feeding units when they arrive at the growing house. They will usually be kept in a separate, smaller part of the house until they are old enough to have access to the rest of the barn. When the broilers have reached a predetermined size depending on the target market, which is often less than 13 weeks of age, the processor schedules the transportation of the birds from the farm to the processing plant. Males and females may be separated during the growing process to ensure more uniformity in mature birds and provision of proper nutrition to males and females. Broilers are typically reared in a enclosed buildings with either a wire-cage or slotted-floor system for feeding and watering, which help with efficiency. Since birds are help in close proximity and can varying in age, disease transmission is a concern while rearing broilers due to limitations in cleaning and disinfecting facilities.
Raising turkeys for meat production begins in a similar way. Brooder rings are used in the same manner to keep the young turkeys, called poults, close to their heat, food, and water sources. Poults are often sorted by gender at hatcheries and raised separately in addition to having their beaks trimmed to prevent injuries among birds. Turkeys may live in 3 different barns before processing at the grow-out farm; having separate barns for different ages allows more birds to be produced in shorter time periods. For the first 5 to 6 weeks, poults are generally in a brooding barn with approximately 1 square foot of space per poult. After that, they may be moved to an intermediate barn or finishing/grow-out barn with approximately three to five square feet of space per bird. Turkeys are sent to market at some point between 15 and 25 weeks of age, where they’ll be transported to a processing plant once at the desired weight around 40 lbs.
Commercial duck production is usually typed as total-confinement or semi-confinement housing depending on access to the outdoors. Ducks grow to their mature market weight in 6 to 7 weeks. At around 4 weeks of age, ducks are moved from a brooding house to the outdoors or another confined barn. By 4 weeks of age, they need at least one square foot of space per bird. If they will be confined until they are sent to market, each bird should be provided at least 2 square feet of floor space after 4 weeks, where overcrowding can be detrimental to the growth and health of the ducks. Additionally, ventilation and heating systems are necessary for larger flocks to remove extra moisture and heat produced by the ducks, allowing for protection from heat-related illness and growth of diseases.
Livestock products like meat may have labels that are voluntarily applied by the producer. Such labels must be truthful and must not be misleading in nature; therefore, the claims are verified by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA. Below are the definitions of free-range and cage-free as per the USDA:
- Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
- Cage-free. This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
- Natural: This label indicates that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed.
- Organic: Organic labelling requirements for poultry require that land for pasturing poultry and feed crops are qualified as organic crops and pasture. Poultry must be raised under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life. Living conditions must provide continuous access to the outdoors, shelter, fresh air, and sunlight year round.
Additional Production Information
- All poultry must be inspected by a USDA inspector to ensure it is wholesome and free of defect, grading is voluntary and is also done by the USDA (no broken bones, bruises, feathers, or discolorations)
- “Fresh” poultry is defined as product that has never been held below 26°F.
- Raw poultry which has been held at 0°F or below must be labeled frozen or previously frozen
- Dating is not required by federal regulations; however, many, if not all, stores and processors use it to decrease likelihood of foodborne illness and to maintain quality.
- No hormones are used in the production of poultry. Antibiotics can be used to prevent disease, but there must be withdrawal time so that the meat is free of antibiotics before consumption
- Additives are not allowed in poultry unless it has been processed, and they must be indicated in the ingredients.
Backyard flocks have become more common in recent years and the risk of Salmonella infections are of concern when in direct contact with live poultry. In order to avoid infections from Salmonella or other pathogens, it is important to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after coming into contact with birds or their surroundings. It is also imperative to keep an eye on children, especially those younger than 5 years of age when around live poultry. Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems should never handle poultry to avoid the risk of infection. Common pathogens associated with backyard poultry include avian influenza (bird flu), Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella.
Pathogens of Concern
There are many potential routes of contamination when dealing with poultry. It is important to avoid cross contamination because improper handling is the leading cause of foodborne illness in poultry. Avoiding cross contamination includes washing cutting boards, knives, and other cutting surfaces as well as keeping other foods separate from these utensils. It is crucial to wash hands frequently when handling poultry and keep raw and cooked foods separate.
Proper thawing techniques are important to minimize time in the “Danger Zone”, the range of temperatures which are optimal periods for bacterial growth between 40°F and 140°F. The correct methods to thaw poultry include: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Each of these methods minimize the amount of time the product is in the “Danger Zone” temperature range, where bacterial growth is highest. Poultry must be stored at or below 40°F and should not be washed prior to preparing.
Inadequate cooking is the second most reported factor contributing to poultry-associated outbreaks. When cooking, poultry must be heated to an internal temperature of 165°F using a meat thermometer to verify the proper temperature and ensure pathogens are killed. In addition, stuffing in the cavity of the bird needs to be heated to 165°F to ensure proper food safety.
Chicken is the most commonly consumed meat in the U.S., ahead of both beef and pork. The per capita consumption of poultry was approximately 112 pounds in 2018, most of which from chicken products. Over the past 60 years, chicken consumption has been steadily rising to pass the average consumption of pork in the 1980s and beef in the 1990s. The U.S. per capita consumption of chicken is now only second to Israel. Similarly, Israel has the leading per capita consumption of turkey ahead of the United States.
The main consumed portions of poultry are the breast, leg, and wing. The breast and wings are primarily made up of white meat whereas the leg typically contains dark meat.
Chicken is prepared in a variety of ways throughout the United States. It is commonly baked, roasted, grilled, and fried, as well as added to dishes such as stews, soups, salads, pasta, curries, and stir-fries. The fast food industry uses chicken in many products, including as chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, and chicken wings. Together, chicken found ubiquitously throughout the food industry, sold in both unprepared and raw forms in addition to fully cooked forms and in products.
Turkey, though consumed less than chicken, is still a popular option among U.S. consumers. The most common ways turkey is consumed are in its whole form, as deli slices, as ground turkey, and in turkey bacon. Turkey products such as ground turkey or turkey bacon are often used as a healthier alternative to their higher fat meat counterparts, ground beef and pork bacon. Turkey holds cultural importance in the U.S. as a staple item in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, where a frozen turkey is typically roasted and stuffed.
Poultry is a high protein food with less cholesterol than red meat. It is a source of complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts for maintenance and growth. Subsequently, poultry meat is considered a high-quality source of protein due to its favorable amino acid profile and high protein digestibility. Fat content in poultry varies greatly depending on the presence of skin; dark meat has a higher amount of fat than white meat. Depending on the cut, the fat content can range from 1% in lean cuts to up to 15% in dark meat. Aside from cut, the fat composition of poultry can vary based on production method. Comparisons organic and conventional chicken nutrient profiles suggest that organically raised chicken tend have lower saturated and monounsaturated fat content along with higher polyunsaturated fat contnt when compared to conventionally raised chicken. Other than fat composition, no other significant differences in nutrient profile have been shown between conventional and organic poultry.
While poultry contains many essential micronutrients, it does also have lower iron content than red meats. Poultry is a valuable source of selenium, phosphorus, and the B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and B12. While poultry is not naturally a significant source of sodium, processing can drastically increase the sodium content of poultry products, such as in deli meats. Like most animal-derived foods, poultry does not contain significant amount of carbohydrate or dietary fiber.
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