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Two-Thirds of Chicken Tested Harbor Dangerous Bacteria

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Consumer Reports' latest test of fresh, whole broilers bought in 22 states reveals that two-thirds of birds tested harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of food-borne disease. The report reveals that organic "air-chilled" broilers were among the cleanest and that Perdue was found to be the cleanest of the brand-name chicken. Tyson and Foster Farms chickens were found to be the most contaminated. The report is available, free online (note, you have to click through the side bars to the left of the story) and in the January 2010 issue of the magazine.

Consumer Reports has been measuring contamination in store-bought chickens since 1998. The recent test shows a modest improvement since January 2007, when the magazine found these pathogens in 8 of 10 broilers, but the numbers are still far too high. The findings suggest that most companies' safeguards are inadequate. The tests also found that most disease-causing bacteria sampled from the contaminated chicken were resistant to at least one antibiotic, potentially making any resulting illness more difficult to treat.

Each year, salmonella and campylobacter from chicken and other food sources infect at least 3.4 million Americans, send 25,500 to hospitals, and kill about 500, according to estimates by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While both salmonella and campylobacter are known to cause intestinal distress, campylobacter can lead to meningitis, arthritis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a severe neurological condition.

"Our tests show that campylobacter is widespread in chicken, even in brands that control for salmonella," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "While one name brand, Perdue, and most air-chilled chickens were less contaminated than others, this is still a very dirty industry that needs better practices and tighter government oversight."

For its latest analysis, Consumer Reports had an outside lab test 382 chickens bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states. Among the findings:

• Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in 9 percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens. That's double the percentage of clean birds Consumer Reports found in its 2007 report but far less than the 51 percent in the 2003 report.
• Among the cleanest overall were organic "air-chilled" broilers (a process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water). About 60 percent were free of the two pathogens.
• Perdue was found to be the cleanest of the brand-name chicken: 56 percent were free of both pathogens. This is the first time since Consumer Reports began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.
• Tyson and Foster Farms chickens were found to be the most contaminated; less than 20 percent were free of either pathogens.
• Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, but only 43 percent of those birds were also free of campylobacter.
• Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics. All of the antibiotics were effective against 32 percent of salmonella samples and 40 percent of the campylobacter samples, as compared to just 16 and 33 percent in 2007.

USDA recently released a survey testing these same pathogens in chicken, and reported finding much lower numbers. The method CR used for campylobacter presence is one of two methods cited in the USDA study and the method used for salmonella presence in the USDA study is the same used by CR. The difference is that CR obtained its samples at retail stores while the USDA samples were obtained at two points in the processing plant.

According to CR, there is more likelihood that chicken can be further contaminated once it leaves the processing plant and travels to the store. Testing chicken bought from a retailer is in all likelihood a better indicator of what consumers will be exposed to and more reflective of what the consumer will encounter with these pathogens.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) a consumer's primary protection against chicken contamination. HACCP requires companies to identify potential points of contamination and take measures to eliminate them. The USDA has a standard that requires chicken producers to test for salmonella but it has yet to set a standard for campylobacter.

The USDA has said that a risk assessment for campylobacter and draft performance standards would be ready by the year's end. It could take months to a year or more, however, for a proposed standard to become a final regulation and take effect.

"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."

Until chicken becomes cleaner, the magazine offers tips for consumers to protect themselves, including thawing frozen chicken in a refrigerator; cooking chicken to at least 165° F; and refrigerating or freezing leftovers within two hours of cooking.

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