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Dirty birds

There's good news and bad news about chicken this week.

Consumer Reports on Monday released the results of its latest survey of fresh, whole broiler chickens and the potentially deadly contaminants they harbor.

On the bright side, CR found fewer contaminated chickens than it identified in its 2007 survey, which showed that 8 out of 10 broilers carried salmonella and/or campylobacter, the two leading bacterial causes of food-borne illness. This year that number was down to about 2 out of 3.


CR tested 382 chickens from more than 100 sales outlets, including supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores and mass merchandisers in 22 states. They found campylobacter--a pathogen that can cause intestinal upset and more serious conditions such as meningitis, arthritis and Guillain-Barre syndrome--in 62 percent of the samples. Salmonella, which mostly causes digestive-tract problems, was present in 14 percent, and 9 percent of the chickens carried both bacteria; accounting for the overlap, about 67 percent of the birds overall were contaminated.

According to the report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes 3.4 million infections a year to salmonella- and campylobacter-contaminated foods. Those infections send more than 25,000 people to the hospital and kill about 500.

Consumer Reports notes that some chicken producers have taken steps to reduce contamination. The report singled out Perdue as having by far the best showing this year. Even so, 56 percent of the Perdue chickens tested were free of both pathogens.

The report also pointed to Tyson and Foster Farms chickens as the dirtiest: fewer than 20 percent of the broilers from these companies were free of both forms of bacteria.

Organic "air-chilled" birds -- ones that are refrigerated and usually misted, rather than submerged in cold chlorinated water -- were among the safest broilers, with about 60 percent found to be free of both pathogens. And store-brand organic chickens did great in the salmonella department, with none found on any of the samples tested, but only so-so when it came to campylobacter, which was found on nearly 60 percent of the birds.

The National Chicken Council responded by saying chicken in the U.S. is safe and that cooking kills any dangerous bacteria that may reside on raw chicken.

To which Consumer Reports countered that the problem shouldn't be minimized.

Consumer Reports calls on the FDA USDA to step up its efforts to establish new standards to help reduce poultry's campylobacter contamination; standards for salmonella contamination are already set.

But it could be a year or longer before that new standard would take effect, the report notes. In the meantime, we consumers are on our own.

If, after reading this, you're still inclined to eat chicken, at least follow these common-sense safety steps recommended by Consumer Reports:

  • Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
  • Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest. Buy chicken last before heading to the checkout line.
  • If you'll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
  • Cook chicken to at least 165° F. Even if it's no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer.
  • Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
  • For more ways to help ensure that your food is safe, go to

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  December 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Safety and Recalls , Nutrition and Fitness  
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It's amazing how many people casually cross-contaminate most of their kitchen when handling raw chicken. You even see this on many cooking shows: people whose hands are still dripping with raw chicken juice touching faucets, cabinet handles, food containers, etc.

I shudder to think how disgusting it gets in a busy restaurant kitchen.

Posted by: DupontJay | December 3, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how small, local farms stack up in terms of chicken contamination? Is this problem due to the way chickens are processed on factory farms (including organic factory farms)?

Posted by: skm1 | December 3, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse


Wash your food well and thoroughly.

Wash your hands. Wash before handling the bird. If you pick up the bird and move it, wash you hands before doing anything else. Wash you hands before handling your bowls and utensils. If you're handling bowls and utensils, wash your hands afterwards before doing anything else.

Wash your utensils. If you use the same bowl, knife or fork, or spoon, wash it well before using it on anything else.

Never use the same cutting board for two different foods without thoroughly washing it between foods. And plastic harbors less than stone, or wood. (Wood is an outstanding way to make sure you get sick!)

Run your wash cloths, sponges, and towels through the dishwasher or clothes washer on hot water and heat dry between each meal. If your towel gets damp from all the drying then it's used up and contaminated already, toss it in the wash pile and get a clean dry one.

I've never made myself or my family sick be following those guidelines.

Posted by: mhoust | December 3, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Its not that difficult to cook chicken... nor does it take much time.

If you cant manage to cook a chicken properly and get sick/die because of it... Think of it as Survival of the fittest.

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | December 3, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Almost all the meat produced in this country contains diseases, drugs, hormones and/or fecal matter. Why is anyone shocked by this?

Posted by: pdxer | December 3, 2009 9:44 PM | Report abuse

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