Supermarket Chickens Tainted with Bacteria

A food contamination test by Consumer Reports found harmful bacteria in Tyson and other brand-name chickens.

December 8, 2009

Farm- or backyard-raised chickens like these Dominiques avoid the contamination found in factory farms. (Photo: Bryan K. Oliver)

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Chicken is chicken, right? Well, not exactly. More and more research is finding that chickens raised in industrial settings are more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria when you buy their meat at the store. A new Consumer Reports analysis found that two-thirds of the store-bought birds they tested were either contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter—or both. Those pathogens are the top bacterial culprits behind foodborne illnesses.

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THE DETAILS: Consumer Reports bought a total of 382 fresh, whole broilers from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet and natural food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states, and sent them to an outside lab for bacterial analysis. Researchers found campylobacter in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 14 percent, and both types of bacteria in 9 percent of the chickens tested. Just 34 percent of the birds were clear of both germs. Even more alarming, most of the chickens that tested positive for harmful bacteria contained at least one germ that showed resistance to one or more antibiotics, which makes infections harder to treat. The number of antibiotic-resistant strains Consumer Reports has detected in chickens is up more than 30 percent since 2007.

Tyson and Foster Farms brand chickens had the worst records, with less than 20 percent free of either pathogen. Perdue was the cleanest of the brand-name chickens, with 56 percent free of both germs. Sixty percent of "air-chilled" broilers, ones that are refrigerated promptly after processing and sometimes misted with chlorinated water rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water, were free of the harmful bacteria. None of the store-brand organic chickens tested positive for salmonella, although only about half were also free of campylobacter.

"Consumers still need to be very careful in handling chicken, which is routinely contaminated with disease-causing bacteria," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Our tests show that campylobacter is widespread in chicken, even in brands that control for salmonella. While one name brand, Perdue, and most air-chilled chickens, were less contaminated than others, this is still a very dirty industry that needs better practices and tighter government oversight."

WHAT IT MEANS: So let's get this straight: Even the "cleanest" brand-name chicken, Perdue, was contaminated about half of the time? That's not exactly comforting. While it's true that these pathogens die during proper cooking, if you fail to handle it correctly or cook the chicken thoroughly, you or your family can become sick, potentially with a germ that doesn't respond well to antibiotics. At fault, say experts like Robert Martin, senior officer at The Pew Center for the Environment and former executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, are the current practices used in industrial chicken operations, where most supermarket chicken comes from. Martin, who has visited industrial operations where as many as 100,000 to 250,000 birds are kept in a single building, says many poultry processors call the buildings "bio-secure," but says that's not possible with flies and people regularly entering the buildings. According to Martin, current industry practices call for the floors (covered with feces, litter waste, skin cells, and sawdust bedding) to be cleaned after a flock goes to slaughter. But from his observations, often the cleaning only takes place after four or five flocks pass through, which can take up to 11 months. "There's a high buildup on the floor that adds to bacterial infections," he explains.

To keep animals alive in these conditions, manufacturers routinely feed the chickens antimicrobials, including low-dose antibiotics (which leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) or even low doses of arsenic. "They live their entire lives in their own feces, the source of salmonella contamination," explains Christine Heinrichs, a Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities spokeswoman and the author of How to Raise Chickens: Everything You Need to Know (Voyageur Press, 2007). Inevitably, their meat is contaminated."

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Infection and Public Health also suggests chickens and factory farms are an unhealthy combination. Researchers found that cars driving behind open-crate poultry trucks from industrial farms to slaughterhouses were harboring drug-resistant strains of harmful bacteria. Yep, turn your air vents off and roll up the windows if you're stuck behind one of these on the road.

Here's how you can buy chicken and protect yourself from food contamination in your home:

• Know who fed your chicken. "Contamination is possible in any flock, but small-flock owners are more likely to keep their birds in cleaner conditions. Producers who sell directly to their customers have a powerful investment in making sure the chicken they sell is clean and safe," says Heinrichs. "The man who set up the first mobile poultry-processing unit for New York State, Jim McLaughlin, told me he had never heard of a single case of foodborne illness from a bird raised on a small farm."

Martin says chickens that are able to move and live in a more natural environment eat more natural food (AKA not antibiotic-laced feed) and develop healthier immune systems. Buying organic chicken from a local farmer (check LocalHarvest.org to find a farm) is the gold standard. Meeting your farmer face-to-face means you can even ask him to raise traditional breeds that take longer to mature but develop better flavor, suggests Heinrichs. She suggests Dominique or the Buckeye breeds.

If buying from a farmer isn't an option, be sure to opt for the store-brand organic chicken at the supermarket. "Organic, while they can be raised in large numbers, tend to be raised not as densely," says Martin. "The whole production system is different—better feed, living environment." Plus, there's more focus on cleaning equipment in between flocks at the processing facilities, where contamination can also occur.

• Raise your own. Consider raising your own chickens. If the thought of killing your backyard bird for dinner turns your stomach, raising hens for eggs could be for you. Read our Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens.

• Handle with care. No matter where you get your meat, it's best to take precautions to avoid contamination. To cut down on your chance of developing a foodborne illness from your bird, be sure your chicken cooks to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if it's not pink, it could still harbor bacteria if not cooked to temperature, so invest in food-safety tools, especially a food thermometer. If you're going to cook your chicken within four days, store it in the bottom compartment of your fridge, where it can't leak onto other foods, at 40 degrees or below. If you're planning it for a meal farther in the future, freeze it. When it's time to thaw a frozen bird, use the microwave (many have a preset thawing sequence), or leave it in the refrigerator inside its packaging and on a plate. Don't thaw by leaving the bird out on the countertop. That causes the outside of the chicken to thaw first, offering a breeding ground for bacteria as the inside thaws.

To kill virtually all germs in your food prep area, wipe it down with mild (not antibacterial) soapy water, and then spray it with a solution of 9 parts water, 1 part vinegar on the surface. It will dry to a shine. For more info, check out our other food-safety tips.

• Make it healthy. Once you have your chicken, check out the chicken recipes in the Rodale Healthy Recipe Finder.