The Trouble With Chicken

Reporting project sprouts three films

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 

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Photo by Christina Animashaun, IRW

Rick Young, left, and David Hoffman review notes before an interview in Washington about food safety. This is the third in a series of films they have reported on together related to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The PBS FRONTLINE team’s latest film, “The Trouble With Chicken,” completes a three-part documentary series about bacteria and antibiotic resistance. The program, co-produced with the Investigative Reporting Workshop, examines the safety of the nation’s meat supply, focusing on chicken, the most popular meat choice among Americans.

Producer Rick Young said the team came across the idea for the story while finishing up its first film, “Hunting The Nightmare Bacteria,” in October 2013. An outbreak of salmonella Heidelberg, linked to Foster Farms, the largest poultry producer on the West Coast, was spreading from California to more than a dozen states and sickening hundreds of people. It became the largest outbreak of contaminated poultry in history.

“It opened up a whole area that I didn’t know much about in terms of how strains of salmonella were becoming more dangerous,” Young said. “The assumption is that people will handle raw meat properly and cook it out. But these bacteria can survive and live on surfaces for months. People aren’t prepared to handle those threats, and yet the government doesn’t have the authority to tell a company to stop producing a product and pull it back from the market.”

As the multi-state outbreak progressed, the production team, including David E. Hoffman, Tony Szulc, Fritz Kramer and Emma Schwartz, was working on the second film, “The Trouble With Antibiotics,” and also began researching chicken and foodborne illness — as well as what the government was doing to prevent outbreaks. During production, they traveled around the country interviewing public-health experts, government officials, including the Secretary of Agriculture, and victims of salmonella poisoning from the outbreak.

Hoffman, the film’s correspondent and a former Washington Post reporter, said he thinks the documentary will help people understand that government meat inspectors are failing to adequately protect consumers.

“I wonder if most Americans realized last year that all the chicken parts they bought were packaged and sent to stores without a federal performance standard. I think most people trust the USDA label on their chicken and had no idea that there was no standard for salmonella on chicken parts. I certainly didn’t,” he said.

Even though raw chicken parts make up 80 percent of the chicken that consumers buy in supermarkets, until recently, the government hasn’t required companies to test the parts for contamination.

Hoffman says he thinks too much burden is put on the individual consumer. “That’s what we have a government for — to protect us. The real issue here is a public policy issue. Is the government doing enough to protect consumers?” Hoffman said.

The film, which airs nationwide on May 12, depicts how the salmonella outbreak went on for more than 16 months, and sickened more than 600 people, before the USDA finally asked the producer, Foster Farms, to recall some of its contaminated product. When the USDA tested chicken parts inside Foster Farms’ plants, they found that one in four pieces of chicken were contaminated with salmonella. It wasn’t until this past January that USDA proposed creating new standards for chicken parts.

Young hopes “The Trouble With Chicken” will raise awareness of the government’s role in the safety of the meat supply and also whether federal inspectors have the tools and enforcement authorities necessary to ensure food safety.

“We expect them to do that. The meat in the store has a stamp of USDA inspection, but what does that really mean?” he said. “You’ve got these major outbreaks that are happening and it’s not because people all of a sudden changed the way they prepare chicken...something’s wrong with the system.”

Despite repeated requests, Foster Farms declined to speak to us or participate in the film, Hoffman said.