Trial by television puts chicken on the salmonella rack

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Pig, BBC 2
Poultry World, 17 May 1979

VIEWERS must have been left confused after last week’s BBC television programme on drugs in animal husbandry and organic versus intensive farming.

The experts, aided by filmed shots of processing plants and abattoirs, told them that poultry was involved in 6,000 of the 11,000 cases of notified food poisoning in a year. Salmonella and the use of drugs was put over as a health risk in the film and pre-publicity that has brought industry protests of bias.

Then came the industry in the shape of Robin Pooley, chairman of the British Poultry Meat Association’s marketing committee, to assure them that chicken was the safest meat on the market – high in protein, low in calories and low in animal fats. “It is a damn sight cleaner than when I entered the industry – and that’s a working lifetime,” he claimed.

After the film had discussed the use of forbidden drugs and the incidence of salmonella, Mr Pooley claimed that it was possible to take the lid off any industry and find some malpractices. But the truth was the poultry industry had been created out of nothing in 25 years.

When it started families ate 1½ chickens a year. Now the rate was one chicken every two weeks.

“People enjoy it and don’t get sick,” he told viewers and a member of the anti-intensive lobby which the BBC had placed in a barn somewhere in Kent.

But the chairman of the programme returned to poultry’s track record on salmonella and the worry that it caused to the Environmental Health Association.

Mr Pooley counter attacked. “We know more about salmonella in chicken than they do.”

The feed for his chickens (Buxted) was salmonella free and it was the same for the breeding flocks. It was possible to produce a salmonella free bird, but there was still the hazard of cross infection from other meats in the kitchen.

The poultry industry was suffering to an extent from its high degree of sophistication and efficiency. With its monitoring systems, laboratories, vets and technicians it was producing more data and statistics than anyone else.

He was on the attack again when a voice from the barn in Kent suggested the people were prepared to pay more for their meat if they knew it would be improved.

Such a move would destroy the poultry industry, he claimed. When another voice suggested that this would be a good thing he detailed the consequences. The loss of 100,000 jobs. The loss of a £1,000 million industry. The loss of 100 million dollars in exports.

The film which preceded the discussion alleged that livestock farmers were still using drugs banned by legislation which followed the 1969 Swann report on the use of antibiotics. A spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Society said there was a substantial black market in antibiotics worth £500,000 a year compared to the estimated total of £20 millions in legal drugs. There was growing evidence that animals were developing resistances to drugs.

Experts claimed that intensive husbandry was living on a knife edge and that modern methods were conducive to the very high carriage of salmonella.

They would only come to grips with the problem when the industry and the public accepted that it would cost a lot more money to reduce the rate, particularly in poultry. In the meantime, the public should assume that the raw meat coming into their kitchen was contaminated.

Don Haxby, immediate past president of the British Veterinary Association, pointed out that all meat could carry salmonella, but it could be controlled on the farm and the input diminished.

His advice to housewives was cook the meat properly to kill any salmonella. “Cook it! Cook it! Cook it!” was his massage.

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