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Is Your Chicken Dinner Making You Sick?

Two new reports highlight public health risks

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Two new reports may have consumers thinking twice about having chicken for dinner.

(Photo: Michael_Lehet/cc/flickr) For its report "The High Cost of Cheap Chicken," Consumer Reports tested over 300 raw chicken breasts, including some labeled as organic and antibiotic free, at national retailers. The study found that nearly all (97 percent) had potentially harmful bacteria, and roughly half (49.7 percent) the chicken sampled contained at least one multidrug-­resistant bacterium.

"Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant. When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.

The report found enterococcus in 79.8 percent of the samples; e. coli in 65.2 percent; campylobacter in 43 percent; klebsiella pneumoniae in 13.6 percent; salmonella in 10.8 percent; and staphylococcus aureus in 9.2 percent.

Of those with e coli, 17.5 percent of the bugs were “ExPEC” bacteria, a type the report says is "more likely than other types to make you sick with a urinary-tract infection."

Salmonella is responsible for roughly 1 million foodborne illnesses each year, but according to Consumer Reports' tests of chicken over the last 15 years, there has been little change in salmonella rates, ranging between 11 and 16 percent.

"Making chicken safer to eat will require a revamping of the way that it’s raised and processed," the report states.

Also on Thursday, Pew Charitable Trusts released a study in which it states that two recent outbreaks of salmonella show that federal regulations and policies fail to protect public health.

In 2012 and 2013, over 500 people were sickened from salmonella outbreaks linked to chicken processed at California plants operated by Foster Farms.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert for the second outbreak, but not the first.  While the body does not have the authority to issue a recall, it can ask the company in question to issue a recall.  But in the Foster Farms case, FSIS did not ask the company to issue a recall, nor did Foster Farms independently issue a recall.  Further, current salmonella contamination performance standards fail to protect public health, the Pew report states.

“When more than 500 people get sick from two outbreaks associated with chicken that meets federal safety standards, it is clear that those standards are not effectively protecting public health,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety project.

“The Food Safety and Inspection Service should go beyond what it is proposing in its recently released ‘Salmonella Action Plan’ and do more to target salmonella, which is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other bacterium or virus,” Eskin stated.

The report recommends that the FSIS

  • Change its approach to developing and implementing limits on salmonella contamination for chicken, known as performance standards, so they are updated regularly, enforceable, and linked to public health outcomes.
  • Consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse.
  • Conduct unannounced salmonella testing in chicken processing facilities.
  • Communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible.
  • Close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food, and keep them closed until adequate control measures are in place.

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