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Food Safety Report Warns of Pathogens in Chicken

24 December 2013

US - A study by a consumer watch dog in the US, Consumer Reports, claims that virtually all chicken products on the supermarket shelves are contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria, writes Chris Harris

The report on a survey, carried out in July before the recent outbreak of salmonella cases in the US linked to processing plants run by the Foster Farms company but published after the Foster Farms incidence, says that out of 300 samples taken virtually all were contaminated.

The watch dog group says that in the US 83 pounds of meat are bought by each person each year.

And according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, the group says that 48 million people fall sick each year from food related illnesses.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that the uncooked chicken you buy won’t contain any potentially harmful bacteria. That’s one reason we advise you to prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food and to cook it to at least 165? F,” Consumer Reports says.

“Yet some bacteria are more worrisome than others—and our latest tests produced troubling findings. More than half of the samples contained faecal contaminants. And about half of them harboured at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics.

“Public-health officials say they think that 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 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the US each year.”

Consumer Reports says that its investigation suggests that potentially harmful bacteria are common on raw chicken.

The survey found salmonella, campylobacter, and staphylococcus aureus, which are some of the most common bacterial causes of food poisoning; E. coli and enterococcus, which are typical measures of faecal contamination, and klebsiella pneumoniae, a bug that’s naturally present in our stomach but that can cause infections such as pneumonia.

“Where we found those bacteria in our chicken samples, we conducted additional tests to determine what the strains were and whether they were resistant to antibiotics,” Consumer Reports says.

“We tested 252 samples from conventionally produced chickens and 64 from brands that use no antibiotics in raising chickens, including 24 organic samples. Our findings were similar to what the Food and Drug Administration sees in its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System of retail meat.”

However, the US National Chicken Council said that the 'Consumer Reports' study has just one common point with which the industry can agree - everyone plays an important role in ensuring food safety for families, from the farm to the table.

The NCC went on to say that Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day, and 99.99 per cent of those servings are consumed safely.

Unfortunately, this particular statistic was left out of the 'in-depth' piece recently published by Consumer Reports the NCC said.

The NCC added that US chicken producers rely upon the best science, microbiology and technology to reduce food-borne pathogens, and spend tens of millions of dollars every year in the name of food-safety research which can be credited with the significant decrease in foodborne pathogens present in chicken over the last several years.

"The belief that affordable food means it is lower in quality or compromised in some way stands in stark contrast to the hard work and efforts of American agriculture, USDA and the hundreds of thousands of US farmers and food producers who work tirelessly to produce a quality protein that is the envy of the world and enjoyed by millions of Americans," said National Chicken Council President Mike Brown.

From 2001 to 2010 — the latest 10-year period for which data are available — outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens decreased by more than 40 per cent. In the past five years, Salmonella in chickens has decreased by 55 per cent.

"Eliminating bacteria entirely is always the goal," Mr Brown added. "But in reality, it’s simply not feasible."

Any raw agricultural product, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria. Whether it’s labelled "organic", "natural", purchased in the grocery store or at your local farmers’ market, there is the potential that fresh food could make us sick, if improperly handled or cooked.

Which is why the National Chicken Council agrees with Consumer Reports on one point — we all play an important role in ensuring food safety for our families, from the farm to the table.

"No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing," Mr Brown added. "The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 per cent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising/growing, handling and cooking it. Right now, we’re at 99.9 per cent but we’re going to keep working to reach 100.

"We take the safety of our chicken very seriously," said Mr Brown. "After all, our families are eating the same chicken as you and yours."

Campaigning Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, who is a senior Democrat on the Rules Committee and a microbiologist said: “How many more news reports, outbreaks or deaths must there be before we really crack down on the source of the antibiotic-resistance crisis: the overuse of antibiotics on the farm?”

She added: “If we continue at this rate, antibiotics, which are necessary to prevent minor diseases from becoming life-threatening illness, will become obsolete, and operations like open-heart surgery, joint replacements and bone marrow transplants will become too dangerous to perform.”

She said that the Consumer Reports article also used Denmark’s experience to demonstrate that limiting antibiotic use on the farm would not be economically disastrous, despite claims by industry.

“Instead of eviscerating the nation’s pork industry, [limiting antibiotics for growth purposes] contributed to a 50 per cent rise in pork production,” the article said.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

Top image via Shutterstock

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