WASHINGTON – Several Eastern Shore poultry farms are opening their doors to federal scientists as part of a nationwide study launched this month to find out the origin of bacteria in chickens.
The 15-month endeavor — the latest by the Agriculture Department in a series of food safety initiatives — will be the most comprehensive study of bacteria in live chickens ever conducted, according to project leader Norman Stern of the USDA’s agricultural research unit.
“The idea is that if you can control this from the live production side then you don’t have bacteria in the food processing plants,” said Stephen Pretanik of the National Broiler Council, a trade association for the poultry industry.
The testing will be done in five of the nation’s top poultry producing areas, with farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula as well as Arkansas, California, Georgia and Mississippi granting federal scientists the opportunity to test their flocks.
Names of the farms participating in the $1.2 million project are being kept secret; the scientists exchanged anonymity with the farmers for farm access.
“It’s not a sterile product, you’re going to find bacteria,” Pretanik said in explaining why the farmers refused to be identified.
Stern said the farmers’ concerns were mostly over bad public relations that could come with the bacteria study results.
Extensive testing will be done for salmonella and campylobacter, two harmful bacteria found in chickens at different steps of the chicken-raising process.
Stern said the span of the project separates it from past efforts. The project will test 40 flocks, each containing about 200 chickens, during the course of four seasons in the five designated areas of the country.
“It’ll be a hell of a challenge,” he said.
The scientists hope to find out the amount, severity, location and possibly the causes of the bacteria throughout the farm process.
Stern said increased consumer attention to food safety led to the project.
“This project really is the next step to further control the human pathogens associated with poultry,” he said.