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.
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 www.BuySafeEatWell.org.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
December 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Food Safety and Recalls , Nutrition and Fitness
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