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Most Chicken Harbors Harmful Bacteria

83% of Chickens Tested for Consumer Reports Had 1 of 2 Sickening Bacteria
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 4, 2006 -- Even if you go for the more expensive organic or antibiotic-free chicken, the chicken you buy at the grocery store probably contains bacteria that can make you sick.

But safe handling and proper cooking can reduce the risk.

A startling 83% of the chickens tested in a recent 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.

However, the results are similar to the contamination found in 1997, when almost three-fourths of the broilers Consumer Reports tested were positive for salmonella or campylobacter.

In their new report, "Dirty Birds," investigators with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, concluded that paying more for a chicken does not increase your chances of getting one free of illness-causing bacteria.

"Overall, chickens labeled as organic or raised without antibiotics and costing $3 to $5 per pound were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers that cost more like $1 a pound," they wrote.

Jean Halloran of Consumers Union tells WebMD that fewer than one if 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.

Antibiotic Resistance High

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 last spring.

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.

"The problem of antibiotic resistance is related to both the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth and the widespread use in humans," Halloran says.

Major brands tested did not show better results than smaller brands, overall, based on tests of 78 chickens from each brand.

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%.

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