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8 out of 10 chickens tested by Consumer Reports harbor dangerous bacteria

Posted Thursday, December 21, 2006

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Largest study of its kind shows highest percentage of dirty birds since CR began testing in 1998

Yonkers, NY — Consumer Reports recently tested fresh, whole broilers bought nationwide and found that they are dirtier than ever. The findings are reported in the January 2007 issue.

Consumer Reports tested 525 chickens from leading brands, as well as organic and other brands raised without antibiotics, for two of the leading bacterial causes of food-borne disease-campylobacter and salmonella. Eighty-three percent of all the birds tested harbored at least one of the two disease-causing organisms. The birds were purchased from supermarkets, mass retailers, gourmet shops, and natural food stores in 23 states last spring.

The bacterial contamination figure represents a stunning increase since 2003, when Consumer Reports last tested chickens for campylobacter and salmonella and found that 49 percent of the birds tested positive for one or both pathogens. Consumer Reports’ 2006 study is the largest study of its kind ever published.

Consumer Reports also found that among all the chicken brands, 84 percent of the salmonella and 67 percent of the campylobacter organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics. Consumer Reports’ findings suggest that some consumers who are sickened by antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of eating undercooked or improperly handled chicken may have to try several antibiotics before they find one that works.

Together, campylobacter and salmonella from all food sources sickened more than 3.4 million Americans and killed more than 700, according to the latest estimates from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dating from 1999.

The story, called “Dirty Birds,” appears in the January 2007 issue of Consumer Reports.

Among Consumer Reports’ other findings:

  • 81 percent of chickens harbored campylobacter, up from 42 percent in 2003
  • 15 percent harbored salmonella. This is compared to 12 percent in 2003
  • 13 percent of birds had both pathogens
  • Overall, chickens labeled as organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers
  • 17 percent of chickens had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all of CR’s tests since 1998
  • No major brand fared better than others overall
  • There was an exception to the poor showing of most premium chickens. As in CR’s previous tests, Ranger—a no-antibiotics brand sold in the Northwest- was extremely clean. Of the ten samples analyzed, none had salmonella and only two had campylobacter.
“The number of contaminated chickens, while disturbing on its face, is even more troubling when compared to the levels of contamination found in previous years,” according to Geoffrey Martin, director of Consumer Sciences at Consumer Reports. “This year’s numbers are the worst I have seen since we began testing fresh chickens in 1998. This is clearly a problem that must be addressed if consumers are to continue trusting the country’s chicken supply.”

Research from the CDC shows a heavy toll is exacted on consumers when they eat undercooked or improperly handled, contaminated chicken. In 2004, poultry was involved in almost a quarter of food-borne illness outbreaks in which a single product was identified, according to the CDC. While both salmonella and campylobacter are known to cause intestinal distress, campylobacter can lead to meningitis, arthritis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a severe neurological disorder.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) which is a consumer’s primary protection against chicken contamination. HACCP requires companies to identify potential points of contamination in processing and take measures to eliminate them. The USDA has a standard that requires chicken producers to test for salmonella but it has not set a standard for campylobacter.

“The USDA has left it up to industry to control campylobacter and it’s clear that has not worked,” said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. “We need a USDA standard immediately. Clearly the measures that have helped to limit salmonella are not controlling campylobacter.”

Until the USDA sets a standard for campylobacter, the consumers’ best line of defense are good shopping habits and handling procedures in stores and in kitchens.


Consumer Reports Quick Tips For Chicken Safety

Here’s what consumers can do to help protect themselves:
  • Make chicken one of the last items selected before heading to the checkout line
  • Choose well-wrapped chicken and put it in a plastic produce bag to prevent it from leaking
  • Store chicken at 40 degrees F. or below. Chicken that is not going to be cooked within a couple of days should be frozen
  • Thaw chicken in the refrigerator on a plate or on a plate in a microwave oven. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave right away. Chicken should never be thawed on the countertop
  • Separate raw chicken from other foods
  • Wash hands immediately after preparing raw chicken and clean all surfaces that were touched by the raw chicken
  • To kill harmful bacteria, chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F. Always use a meat thermometer
  • Do not return cooked chicken to the plate that held it raw
  • Refrigerate or freeze uneaten chicken within two hours of cooking
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