Be thankful that turkey is the bird of choice for Thanksgiving, because Consumer Reports has just released the results of a startling study about America's favorite bird: Two-thirds of chicken tested in 22 states is contaminated with either salmonella or campylobacter, the leading causes of food-borne illness. (One in 10 was contaminated with both. And most were contaminated with at least one antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria.)
These bugs kill. More than 3 million food-borne infections are documented each year (with many more likely going undocumented), 25,000 people are hospitalized and 500 die from these two bugs.
Both results point to the problems of industrial farming, which produces cheap chickens, but in hangars so crowded with birds that beaks are often cut to prevent injuries, where stepping in other birds' feces is a way of (short, unhappy) life, and where routine use of antibiotics to ward off poultry illness produces drug-resistant strains of bacteria that can result in hard-to-treat human illnesses.
Disgustingly, the results actually show improvement over a similar 2007 study, when 8 in 10 birds showed signs of contamination.
For consumers, there are several lessons in the results:
1. Cook your chicken thoroughly
Simply, you can't trust that the bird -- Consumer Reports tested whole broilers -- is safe to eat. Cook thoroughly (to at least 165 degrees F, checked with a meat thermometer) and prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food or kitchen surface that can't be thoroughly disinfected or discarded. Even as you read about brand-specific results below, be aware that the results offer only a snapshot in time, and don't necessarily guarantee than any brand is always safe.
2. Know your farmer
There's no guarantee that a locally raised chicken is free of contamination, but if you know how it was raised, you can get some direct assurance that conditions weren't breeding sick chickens.
3. Check the label
Look for "air-chilled" organic chickens, which had the best track record for avoiding contamination in the latest round of testing. Be aware, though, that "organic" alone does not provide much food safety assurance: While salmonella counts were non-existent in store-brand organic chicken, more than half had campylobacter.
4. Know the brands
Of the three top brands tested -- Foster Farms, Perdue and Tyson -- Perdue had the best track record for safety in the latest round of tests. But still only 56% of its chicken was free of both pathogens. (Still, Tyson and Foster Farms had greater than 80% contamination rates.) Major brands use a disinfection process that involves dunking chickens in a chlorine bleach bath.
5. Support higher standards
The USDA has, under pressure from Consumer Reports' publisher, Consumers Union, been contemplating higher poultry safety standards for five years. A decision is near. The Senate is also debating a new food safety bill. If you believe food safety standards are in need of an upgrade, make your voice heard.
"USDA has been pondering new standards to cut the prevalence of bacteria in chicken for more than five years but has yet to act," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. "Consumers shouldn't have to play roulette with poultry; the USDA must make chicken less risky to eat."
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