In this report


Last reviewed: January 2010

Here, a monthly perspective from Consumers Union on the latest challenges—and possible solutions—facing U.S. consumers today. See archived letters.


Lax rules, risky food

Chickens on a chicken farm
Fouled up
Two types of bacteria found in chickens sicken 3.4 million Americans a year.
Photograph by AP Images

Chicken is one of the few foods on Americans' grocery lists that is routinely contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. Thorough cooking makes it safe, but it's easy to slip up by undercooking or by exposing other food to raw chicken juices. And it's impossible to know whether a restaurant has taken all proper precautions.

Those steps are critical to avoiding illness. Consumer Reports' latest tests found contamination in 66 percent of chicken from more than 100 stores. (See our report on Chicken safety.) The Department of Agriculture has been pondering new standards to cut the prevalence of certain bacteria in chicken for at least 10 years but has yet to act. Consumers shouldn't have to play roulette with poultry; the USDA must make chicken less risky to eat.

Problems and remedies

Limits should be stricter

The Department of Agriculture's standard for salmonella in chicken is too lax; it allows about 20 percent of a series of samples taken at a processor to be contaminated. It's possible to achieve a much lower rate; in our tests, store-brand organic chicken had no salmonella contamination at all.

Regulations are missing

No USDA standard exists for campylobacter, bacteria that sicken an estimated 2 million people a year in the U.S. with diarrhea, nausea, and fever. Our tests show that campylobacter is widespread in chicken, even in brands that control salmonella. Consumers Union has long called for the USDA to set limits on both the percentage of chicken samples that can be contaminated with campylobacter and the levels of it that they can contain. Some processors minimize campylobacter better than others; the USDA should determine how they do that and require those practices for the entire industry.

Antibiotics are misused

Cattle, swine, and chicken are routinely given antibiotics to speed growth and prevent infection. A high percentage of bacteria in our tested chicken were resistant to one or more antibiotics. Food poisoning in humans that is caused by resistant bacteria is much more difficult to treat.

Antibiotics are a precious resource for fighting disease. But the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that 70 percent of antibiotics given in the U.S. are used not to treat infections or diseases in humans but to pump up animals. Consumers Union urges Congress to pass proposed legislation that would end that practice.