July 15, 2018

Consumer Reports: Most Chicken Harbors Pathogenic Bacteria

A new report to be published in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports finds that 97% of the chicken breasts they tested harbor pathogenic bacteria. Most deaths from food poisoning in the U.S. are attributed to poultry. So Americans must now assume that the raw chicken they bring into their houses is a hazard.

Pieces of raw chicken meatScientists analyzed more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased across the U.S. More than half of those samples contained at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more antibiotics. The Foster Farms outbreak this fall is just one example of the problem. Forty percent of those sickened in that outbreak were hospitalized, which is double the usual percentage, because the bacteria were antibiotic resistant. That makes salmonellosis much more difficult to treat.

In the Consumer Reports testing, they found Salmonella, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli,  Enterococcus, and Kiebsiella pneumoniae on the chicken. Every one of the four major brands tested, including Perdue, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Farms, and Tyson contained “worrisome amounts of bacteria”. Even breasts labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics” had bacteria. The levels of bacteria on chicken were: Enterococcus (79.8%), E. coli (65.2%), Campylobacter (43%), Kiebsiella pneumoniae (13.6%), Salmonella (10.8%), and Staphylococcus auerus (9.2%).

Most people get sick from cross-contamination in the kitchen. Handling raw chicken transfers bacteria to your hands. Juices dripping from the chicken contaminate other foods and food contact surfaces. And undercooked chicken will contain live pathogenic bacteria. You even have to be careful at the grocery store. Just touching the plastic wrapping on packages of chicken could expose you to pathogenic bacteria. A CDC study in 2010 found that 13% of children under the age of 3 were “potentially exposed” to raw meat or poultry products while riding in the grocery store shopping cart. [Editor’s note: I only pick up packages of raw meat at the store by putting my hand into a plastic bag, then turning the bag inside out around the package.]

Even cooking chicken properly is difficult. In the Foster Farms outbreak, Costco had to recall 22,000 fully cooked rotisserie Kirkland Signature Foster Farms chickens because it had the outbreak strain of Salmonella. The only way to protect yourself is to be super careful about handling and cooking raw chicken.

Consumer Reports would like to see several things happen to make chicken safer to eat. The FDA should prohibit antibiotic use in food animals except for treatment of sick animals. The National Organic Program should eliminate the loophole allowing antibiotic use in chicken eggs. USDA should classify antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as “adulterants” so it will be illegal to sell that meat. HIMP should be stopped. Congress should give USDA authority to recall meat and poultry products that are linked to outbreaks. And USDA should speed up efforts to set levels for Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken.

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