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%.
Chicken Producers Respond
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires chicken producers to test for salmonella, but not campylobacter. The agency will begin collecting data on campylobacter soon, but it is not clear if it will set federal limits or require routine testing.
Halloran says it is clear routine testing is needed.
"81% [campylobacter] contamination is intolerable, in our view," she says.
Richard L. Lobb, a chicken industry spokesman, agrees that 81% would be unacceptable, but he argues that far fewer chickens are contaminated with the bacteria.
Lobb is director of communications for the National Chicken Council. He cites a recent, larger study by USDA researchers, in conjunction with the 10 major chicken processors, which found campylobacter bacteria in 26% of the processed chickens tested.
"How they could get from 26% to 81% just blows my mind," Lobb tells WebMD.
He adds that the chicken industry does not oppose testing for campylobacter, and says chicken is both a safe and healthy food.
"Consumer Reports says what every cook already knows -- that fresh poultry may carry naturally occurring bacteria and should be properly handled and cooked," says Lobb.
"The Consumer Reports story, as far as we know, contains nothing new and should not be cause for alarm to anyone," he says.
What Can You Do?
All agree 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," Halloran says. "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," Halloran says. "They can't take chances."