I didn’t catch this two-day-old story until now, but it’s causing me to reheat my homemade chicken broth to boiling. Consumer Reports found a stunning 83 percent of all chickens it tested harbored campylobacter or salmonella, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. And that was up from 49 percent of chickens tested just three years ago.
Even more troubling, it found much of the bacteria was resistant to antibiotics. Why is this an issue? Because the Centers for Disease Control estimates 40,000 people get sick and 600 die each year from salmonella. Campylobacteriosis is estimated to affect over 1 million persons every year, or 0.5% of the general population.
Consumer Reports went out and bought 525 chickens in 23 states. Among them were organic, natural (antibiotic free), and conventional.
Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.
Further, it noted that organic or chickens labeled antibiotic free “and costing $3 to $5 per pound were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers that cost more like $1 per pound.” There are many good reasons to buy organically raised chickens — but apparently avoiding bacteria is not one of them.
But the most troublesome element of the report had to do with antibiotic resistance:
When we took bacteria samples from contaminated broilers and tested for sensitivity to antibiotics, there was evidence of resistance not just to individual drugs but to multiple classes of drugs. That indicates there may be fewer to choose from, and infections may be more stubborn. We didn’t have enough data to assess whether there were differences in resistance among brands.
What does that mean? The overuse of antibiotics in conventional chicken operations is creating resistant strains of bacteria. When you get sick from these bacteria, antibiotics might not work.
The USDA poured cold water on the report, labeling it “junk science” because of the sample size. It found salmonella in 16.3 percent of broilers last year, but it doesn’t yet test for campylobacter.
What can you do?
- In the supermarket, choose well-wrapped chicken, and put it in a plastic bag to keep juices from leaking.
- Store chicken at 40° F or below. If you won’t use it for a couple of days, freeze it.
- To kill harmful bacteria, cook chicken to at least 165° F.