Thinking chicken? Think again. Most chicken harbors harmful bacteria

February 22, 2008

A startling 83% of the chickens tested in a 2007 Consumer Reports investigation were contaminated with one or both of the leading bacterial causes of food-borne disease — salmonella and campylobacter.

That is up from 49% in 2003, when the group last reported on contamination in chickens.

In their report, “Dirty Birds,” investigators with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, concluded that  that fewer than one of five birds tested (17%) were free of both pathogens, the lowest percentage of clean birds recorded since the group began testing chickens eight years ago.

Investigators for the independent consumer group tested 525 whole broiler chickens from leading brands like Perdue, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Foster Farms, as well as organic and other brands raised without antibiotics.

The chickens were purchased at supermarkets, mass retailers, gourmet shops, and natural food stores in 23 states.

Among the findings:

  • 15% of chickens tested were contaminated with salmonella, compared to the 12% reported by Consumers Union in 2003.
  • 81% harbored campylobacter, up from 42% in 2003. This bug is the main identified cause of bacterial diarrhea illness in the world.
  • 13% of chickens were contaminated with both bacteria, up from 5% in 2003.
  • 84% of the salmonella organisms analyzed and 67% of the campylobacter were resistant to one or more antibiotics. In the 2003 report, 34% of the salmonella and 90% of campylobacter were resistant.

Among major brands, salmonella contamination ranged from a low of 3% in Foster Farms chickens to a high of 17% in chickens processed by Perdue.

But Perdue had the lowest level of campylobacter-contaminated chickens, with 74%; Tyson had the highest, at 89%.

Proper handling and cooking can greatly reduce and even eliminate the risk of illness from chickens harboring salmonella or campylobacter bacteria.

That means always cooking chicken thoroughly, to the point where there are no red juices.

Chicken needs to be cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The best thing to do is test it with a meat thermometer. And if you are in a restaurant and you cut into chicken that doesn’t look done, send it back.

Other suggestions for reducing risk include:

  • At the grocery store, make chicken one of the last things you pick up before heading to the check-out line.
  • Store and thaw chicken in the refrigerator, making sure its juices are contained and cannot contaminate other foods.
  • Placing it on a plate, in a bowl, or inside a plastic bag is a good way to do this.
  • When preparing chicken, wash your hands with soap and water after contact, and immediately clean cutting boards, knives, and anything else the chicken touches in hot, soapy water.
  • Never return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw without washing the plate first.
  • Washing chicken and removing its skin before cooking does not ensure it is free of bacteria.

“Consumers now have to realize that most chickens contain disease-causing bacteria, and that means they have to act appropriately,” says Jean Halloran, director, Food Policy Initiatives at Consumer’s Union. “They can’t take chances.”


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