At Battelle Memorial Institute, senior researcher Brian Hawkins glanced at a cartoon chicken decorating the top of a webpage, then observed, "Poultry is the riskiest food there is. There’s a large number of recalls and food-bourne illnesses just due to contamination of poultry every day."
All this week, that point has been driven home, as hundreds of Americans across 17 states have been sickened by chicken infected with salmonella bacteria.
Some forms of those bacteria are not killed by current antibiotics.
Meanwhile, at Battelle, scientists like Hawkins think they can help the poultry industry fight future illness outbreaks by using the same techniques they perfected for Homeland Security to fight the effects of terrorism.
Hawkins said that they used math to create a computer program for Homeland Security that analyzes risks - to explain, for instance, what happens if a terrorist puts poison in the water.
"Whether a terrorist put it there, or whether it's a problem endemic in chickens such as salmonella, how it proceeds is the same. And the things we can do to stop it, after it's been contaminated, are largely similar, " he explained. "We can't tell you that someone on the corner of Fifth and High is going to be sick, but we can give you a decent idea of where and how that might happen."
He said that the poultry industry hires experts to manage infection control, but people in the industry also know that there are many points in the process when the birds can get infected at the farm, in the processing plant, during transport, at the grocery store, and in kitchen.
There are different technologies available to chill and handle chicken, but the industry is unsure which techniques will do the best job at any given point.
"They've really got to look at cost-benefit," Hawkins said, "Because the cost of food can't increase drastically without causing economic problems, and they're very sensitive to that."
That's where the new Battelle web tool comes in. Users can input a variety of factors to help them make decisions that affect both the nation's health and their own bottom line.
"Which one of those is going to have the best impact is something they don't really know.
Our tool gives them a way to quantify that, so they can inform that decision," he said.
The researchers will present their new tool at an international poultry conference in January.