Bell & Evans, the big Lebanon County poultry processor, touts its credentials on its website. “From humane animal welfare to our 100% air chilled method, everything we do adds up to healthier, more flavorful chicken. No antibiotics. No added water.”
But none of those practices prevented dangerous salmonella bacteria from contaminating the company’s high-end organic chicken, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.
A concern for decades, salmonella sickens more than one million Americans a year and leads to 26,500 hospitalizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. However, it won’t cause infection if meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
The amount of salmonella USDA inspectors detected in Bell & Evans’ chicken parts and ground chicken grew from a safe level late last summer, when those products received the best rating of “1,” to a level well above government targets by April, resulting in a rating of “3,” the worst score. The company’s whole chickens met the government standard.
“Nobody wants to be at a 3. I’m sure they’re moving mountains and hills to get back to 1,” said Gregory Martin, a poultry expert from the Penn State Extension who has visited Bell & Evans’ processing center and and knows the longtime owners of the business, the Sechler family.
To protect consumers, the company must quickly determine the source of the salmonella and “take appropriate action" to eradicate it, he said.
The USDA publishes processors’ salmonella scores online each month, but the government cannot take action against companies with bad ratings. That’s because a landmark 2001 U.S. Court of Appeals decision classified salmonella as a naturally occurring bacteria that can’t be regulated.
Bell & Evans did not respond to requests for comment. The company has also been silent about a recent report in The Inquirer that described a growing coronavirus outbreak among workers that has killed at least three people and sickened untold more.
The largest private employer in Lebanon County, Bell & Evans has expanded rapidly across Fredericksburg, a small town, opening over the last five years a massive processing facility and a modern hatchery.
In February, the fast-growing poultry company announced plans to add two manufacturing lines, each processing 140 chickens a minute, the fastest speed allowed under federal law without special waivers.
The latest federal food inspection data available show that 15% of all chicken products rated by the government were given the lowest grades of 3, or 112 product lines in all. Bell & Evans was the only Pennsylvania processor with 3′s for two different products in April. That same month, the large Tyson Foods processing plant in New Holland, Lancaster County, earned top safety ratings for its broilers and chicken parts.
Salmonella spreads through chicken waste. Experts say many factors contribute to a processor’s salmonella ratings: the use of anti-microbial chemicals during production, when the chicken gets inspected by investigators, the cleanliness of plant water, and what happens when the live birds are trucked to poultry plants for slaughter.
Because of Bell & Evans’ New Age chicken-processing techniques, the company has attracted consumers who are willing to pay more. McCaffrey’s Food Markets in Bucks County, for instance, stocks a full line of Bell & Evans products, pricing the chicken a third higher than other brands. Top-of-the-line Bell & Evans organic boneless chicken breasts cost $10.99 a pound at McCaffrey’s, similar to a good steak.
Chicken processors such as Bell & Evans typically respond quickly to improve salmonella scores, fearful of losing market share either with consumers not buying their product or grocery chains choosing new plants to source from, food experts say.
When told of Bell & Evans’ ratings, Bill Marler, a Seattle food-safety attorney who brought lawsuits after the deadly E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in the early 1990s, said that “whether it’s grass-fed or lives in a condo or is petted before you kill it, it has salmonella,” and the "greater the concentration, the more likely you will get sick.”