Consumer Reports test shows 97 percent of chicken samples contaminated

Test looked for harmful bacteria

SAN DIEGO - Consumer Reports tested more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased at stores across the country and found potentially harmful bacteria in 97 percent of the samples.

"We tested the chicken for six bacteria, including salmonella and campylobacter, which are common causes of food poisoning, and E. coli and enterococcus, which are typical measures of fecal contamination," said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., with Consumer Reports.

More than half of the chicken breasts were tainted with E. coli and enterococcus. And all the major brands tested - Perdue, Tyson, Sanderson Farms, and Pilgrim's - contained worrisome bacteria, as did smaller brands and packages labeled "organic" or "no antibiotics."

"Most troubling, when we looked at all of the chicken breasts we tested, about half harbored at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more common families of antibiotics," Rangan said.  

Rick Schiller knows the dangers. He wound up in the hospital with severe abdominal pain after eating chicken contaminated with salmonella.

"I thought I wasn't going to make it there for a little bit," Schiller said. "I was that sick. I was so sick I couldn't move around, I didn't want to talk, I just wanted to lay there."

Consumer Reports says when it comes to preparing chicken, you can't be too careful.

"Our tests did not reveal any better choice, despite some differences among brands and types," Rangan said. "You really want to make sure to cook chicken until it reaches 165 degrees in the center."

Chicken is the most popular meat for American dinners. Consumers buy an estimated 83 pounds per capita annually.

Here’s what you should know before buying your next package of chicken.

It's unrealistic to expect that the uncooked chicken you buy won't contain any potentially harmful bacteria. That's one reason Consumer Reports advises people to prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food and to cook it to at least 165? F. Yet some bacteria are more worrisome than others-and our latest tests produced troubling findings. More than half of the samples in the test contained fecal contaminants.

Public health officials say they think the resistance to antibiotics in general is such a major concern that in September the CDC released a landmark report outlining the dire threat it poses to our health. Antibiotic-­resistant infections are linked to at least two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. And if antibiotic-­resistant bacteria continue their scary spread, they could lead to deadly infections after routine surgery or even a seemingly innocuous cut because the drugs that doctors prescribe will have lost their effectiveness.

Consumer Reports tests showed that those resistant bacteria are commonly found in chicken at your local grocery store. Samples were collected in July 2013, months before the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak drew a public-health alert from the Department of Agriculture (USDA). It turned out that Consumer Reports had purchased a package of the tainted chicken and that tests found a strain of salmonella, known as Heidelberg, that matched one of those linked to the outbreak.

Tainted food sickens 48 million people each year

Salmonella bacteria come in many strains. To understand their differences, think of all of the different breeds of dogs, said Lance Price, Ph.D., a professor in environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C.

"All dogs are the same species, but a Chihuahua and a pit bull behave differently," Lance said. The drug-resistant Heidelberg strain of salmonella associated with the Foster Farms outbreak is more likely than other strains to cause disease. Antibiotic resistance by itself doesn't make a pathogen more virulent, but when it occurs in a virulent strain such as the Heidelberg, something inherently dangerous suddenly becomes even worse-a bacterium that Price said acts "like a pit bull with rabies."

Most of the illnesses caused by Foster Farms chicken produced symptoms typical of any salmonella infection-nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a low-grade fever, says Christopher Braden, M.D., director of the division of food borne, waterborne, and environmental diseases at the CDC. What was different was that the outbreak sent about twice as many people to a hospital as a typical salmonella outbreak does. About 20 percent of people with salmonella end up hospitalized; almost 40 percent of those sickened by the Foster Farms-­produced chicken did, Braden says.

It's also important to wash your hands well after handling raw chicken. And don't wash raw chicken under the faucet. That can spread bacteria and increase your risk of getting sick.  

The Food and Drug Administration just issued voluntary new guidelines that would limit the way farmers can use antibiotics in chicken. Consumer Reports said it's a good first step but much more needs to be done.

Funding for Consumer Reports' chicken test was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The conclusions are those of Consumer Reports.

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