Chicken: green buying guide 11/10
(This article is adapted from the January 2010 Consumer Reports magazine.)
You would think that after years of alarms about food safety—outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup—a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in Consumer Reports latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease.
So Consumers still can't let down their guard. They must cook chicken to at least 165° F and prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food.
Use one cutting board for raw chicken (or other meat) and one for other foods. Immediately after preparation, use hot, soapy water and paper towels to wash and dry your hands and anything you or raw chicken might have touched.
Consumer Reports has been measuring contamination in store-bought chickens since 1998. For our latest analysis, we had an outside lab test 382 chickens bought from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states. We tested three top brands—Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson—as well as 30 non-organic store brands, nine organic store brands, and nine organic name brands. Five of the organic brands were labeled "air-chilled" (a slaughterhouse process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water).
Among the findings:
• Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, showing that it's possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacterium riding along. But as the tests showed, banishing one bug doesn't mean banishing both: 57 percent of those birds harbored campylobacter.
• Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens. Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both, but the sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.
• Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in 9 percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens. That's double the percentage of clean birds Consumer Reports found in 2007, but far less than the 51 percent in 2003.
• The cleanest name-brand chickens were Perdue's: 56 percent were free of both pathogens. This is the first time since Consumer Reports began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.
• Most contaminated were Tyson and Foster Farms chickens. More than 80 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.
• Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms that were analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.
How to choose
It's not surprising that Consumer Reports found antibiotic-resistant bacteria even in organic chickens, which are raised without antibiotics. "Chickens grown under organic conditions are given exposure to the outdoors, which provides contact with vermin such as rodents, insects, and birds that can carry and transmit these bacteria to chickens," said Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. Moreover, once genes for antibiotic resistance are in the gene pool of microbes, they can persist in the soil for years, even after the antibiotics are no longer in use.
• Make chicken one of the last items you buy before heading to the checkout line.
• Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest.
• Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
• If you'll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
• Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
• Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
• Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
Watch videos on chicken safety and safe food handling.
Chicken safety: organic vs. conventional 1/10
For more ways to help ensure that your food is safe, go to our food safety website www.BuySafeEatWell.org.