Report: Bacteria in chicken too high

Consumer Reports News: November 30, 2009 05:10 PM

Consumer Reports latest tests, released today, of 382 whole chickens bought from more than 100 stores in 22 states, found that two-thirds harbor disease-causing bacteria—salmonella, campylobacter or both (read the full report). While one name brand, Perdue, and most air-chilled organic chickens were significantly less contaminated than Foster Farms and Tyson brand chicken, consumers still need to be extremely vigilant in handling and cooking chicken.

The National Chicken Council responded to these results by downplaying the problem.  In a statement issued today the NCC said, “Like all fresh foods, raw chicken may have some microorganisms present, but these are destroyed by the heat of normal cooking." True about cooking, but it is hard to think of another category of food where your chances are better than 50-50 of encountering a contaminated product.  If a consumer slips up and raw chicken juices drip on salad greens in the refrigerator, or a cook uses a contaminated chicken knife on a salad tomato, the consequences could be severe.
The chicken industry can do better. For the store-brand organic chicken CR tested, the salmonella contamination rate was zero—not one of the 44 samples had any salmonella (unfortunately the same cannot be said of campylobacter, which showed up in 57 percent of the store-brand organic birds).
The industry should not be complacent about widespread contamination of chicken with bacteria.  And the USDA must tighten up its standard for salmonella and establish one for campylobacter to insure that the industry addresses the problem.
Behind the numbers
In response to CR's latest tests, the NCC also noted:  “A much more comprehensive survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found salmonella and campylobacter on fewer raw chickens than Consumer Reports.”  CR used essentially the same test methods that the USDA uses to test for presence or absence of salmonella and campylobacter.  However one key difference between the studies is that Consumer Reports tested chicken purchased in supermarkets and other stores, whereas the USDA tests at slaughter plants. CR believes that our data therefore provides a more accurate picture of what consumers actually encounter and must deal with.
The NCC continues: “More important is the fact that USDA found that the levels of microorganisms present are usually very low. Consumer Reports failed to perform this analysis.”  CR did not test for the levels of bacteria in part because as few as 15 salmonella or 400 campylobacter organisms can make you ill, and in part because levels can change rapidly—bacteria are living organisms that can multiply at the right temperature. If bacteria are present, there can soon be more of them

The NCC concludes: “In fact, the industry does an excellent job in providing safe, wholesome food to American consumers.”  When our tests found 44 percent of the chickens from the best performing major brand of chicken, Perdue, were contaminated with one or both pathogens, and 80 percent of the chickens from the most contaminated brands we tested—Tyson and Foster Farms—had the bacteria, the industry cannot be regarded as providing sufficiently safe and wholesome food.  The industry must and can do better, and the USDA must establish the standards and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that outcome.

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