Published on Feb 17, 2010 by Edgar Snyder

Chicken Contamination Is Common, Study Finds

chicken contamination

Chicken isn't as safe as you might think, according to a study conducted by Consumer Reports magazine. Their analysis found that two-thirds of the 382 chickens bought from more than 100 food stores harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter.

Campylobacter and salmonella are the leading causes of foodborne illness, and each year they infect 3.4 million Americans, send 25,500 to hospitals, and kill about 500 people, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The diseases might be even more widespread, though, because many people don’t seek medical attention for their symptoms or aren’t screened for foodborne infections.

In order to minimize contamination, poultry processors follow a set of federally mandated procedures known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). The measures are followed in slaughterhouses and processing plants and require that companies state explicitly where contamination might occur and institute procedures to prevent, reduce, or eliminate it.

Government inspectors from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitor the HACCP plans of chicken companies and examine carcasses for problems. Plants that generate more than 12 salmonella-positive samples during 51 consecutive days of production fail to meet FSIS standards. The plant would be required by a FSIS review of the HACCP plan to fix any problems and might incur penalties.

Despite these regulations, Consumer Reports found the following in their recent study:

  • Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in nine percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens.
  • Some of the cleanest chickens overall were processed in "air-chilled" broilers (a process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked, in cold chlorinated water).
  • Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, but 57 percent of those birds harbored campylobacter.
  • The cleanest name-brand chickens were Perdue, 56 percent of which were free of both pathogens.
  • The most contaminated were Tyson and Foster Farms chickens. More than 80 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.
  • Of all brands and types of chicken tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms tested showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.

To safeguard against possibly harmful bacteria in chicken, the following food safety guidelines are recommended:

  • Cook poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Buy chicken last when grocery shopping so it stays cold.
  • Choose a well-sealed bird from the bottom or coolest part of the case.
  • Put the chicken in a plastic bag to prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator rather than on the counter because the thawed outside can become a breeding ground for bacteria while the inside is still frozen.
  • Don’t return cooked meat to a plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
Source: "How safe is that chicken?" Consumer Reports. January 2010.
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