Microbiological tests of store-bought chickens, published in the March issue of Consumer Reports magazine, found Campylobacter, a rod-shaped bacterium and the leading cause of food poisoning nationwide, in 63 percent of the chickens tested, while Salmonella was found in 16 percent of the chickens.
Those numbers include eight percent of the total number tested that had both Campylobacter and Salmonella. Only 29 percent were free from both. The testing is the most comprehensive of its kind ever published in the US, and uses a sample size of almost 1000 fresh chickens purchased at retail stores in 36 cities.
Public health officials estimate that the annual cost of illnesses caused by Campylobacter is up to $5.6 billion and salmonella is up to $3.5 billion. Campylobacter is responsible for 1.1 to 7 million food-borne infections and 110 to 1000 deaths each year. Salmonella sickens some 700,000 to 4 million people, and kills up to 2000 each year.
The two bacterial contaminants can be eliminated if the chicken is cooked to an interior temperature of 180 degrees (breasts to 170 degrees). But cooking a chicken to the proper temperature is only half the battle. Cooks have to be careful not to spread the bacteria via contaminated implements, pans, cutting boards, kitchen towels, and sponges.
Other key findings in the report:
• As a group, premium chickens -- including free-range birds -- were most contaminated.
• One in 20 birds were nearly spoiled, and even a fresh bird is not necessarily free of disease-causing bacteria.
• No one brand was consistently cleaner than others.
• Some generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) is present on virtually every chicken on the market, but the levels were almost always low.
In addition to bacterial contamination, Consumer Reports also tested for taste. Key findings:
• Despite their reputation and price, the free-range chickens tasted no better overall than other types.
• Chickens from all the brands were acceptable in taste. But there were enough differences overall among brands that some could be identified as slightly better or worse than others. However, the taste variations noted were often as great within a single brand as among the brands. And if seasonings or sauces are used, differences among brands will likely be minimal.
Recommendations for action
The US. Department of Agriculture certifies a chicken as free from visible signs of disease, but not free of disease-causing microorganisms. The USDA has made several recent enhancements (the latest put into place on January 26, 1998) to inspection systems required at poultry processing plants, including testing for Salmonella, but not Campylobacter.
Among measures that would make for cleaner chickens, Consumer Reports recommends:
• Test for Campylobacter. Testing is not currently required at chicken plants.
• Lower the Salmonella limit. USDA regulations allow that up to 20 percent of a plant's chickens can test positively for salmonella.
• Congress should give USDA real enforcement power by authorizing recalls and civil penalties.
• Carry out research and education initiatives as proposed in the Administration's Fiscal Year '99 Food Safety budget request.