Chicken safety: Organic vs. conventional
Consumer Reports’ latest tests for dangerous pathogens on hundreds of organic and nonorganic chickens bought at stores nationwide revealed that the majority were contaminated. Two-thirds of the broilers harbored at least one of the two leading bacterial causes of food-borne diseases: campylobacter and salmonella. That's a modest improvement from our January 2007 tests, when 8 in 10 broilers were found to harbor those pathogens, but worse than our January 2003 tests, when about half the broilers were clean. Some other findings from our new tests:
Among the cleanest broilers overall were organic “air-chilled,” a process in which carcasses are refrigerated and misted, rather than dunked in cold, chlorinated water. In total, about 60 percent of air-chilled birds were free of the two pathogens tested for, campylobacter and salmonella. Eight of the clean birds were Bell & Evans air-chilled broilers, but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be clean.
Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, showing that it’s possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacteria riding along. But only 43 percent of those birds were also free of campylobacter.
Of the conventional chickens tested, Perdue was found to have the cleanest name-brand broilers (56 percent were free of both pathogens), while Tyson and Foster Farms broilers were found to be the most contaminated (less than 20 percent were free of either pathogens).
LEVELS OF CONTAMINATION
Below are the percentages of broilers that tested positive for campylobacter, salmonella, or neither. We analyzed 70 chickens from each major brand, 66 from nonorganic store brands, 62 from organic name brands, and 44 from organic store brands. Figures are averages for store brands (both organic and nonorganic) and for organic name brands. Totals may exceed 100 percent because some broilers harbored both pathogens.
*Organic name brands: Bell & Evans, Coastal Range, Coleman, D’Artagnan, Eberly’s, MBA Brand Smart Chicken, Mary’s, Pollo Rosso, Rosie
||% Campylobacter||% Salmonella
**Organic store brands: Central Market HEB, O Organics (Safeway), Pacific Village (New Seasons), Private Selection Organic Fred Meyer, Private Selection Organic King Sooper, Private Selection Organic Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Whole Foods
***Nonorganic store brands: AJ’s, Acme, Albertson’s, America’s Choice, Diebergs, Earth Fare, Fiesta, Fresh & Easy, Giant, Giant Eagle, Harris Teeter, Harry’s, Hill Country Fare, Jewel, King Sooper, Kroger Value, Market Pantry, Nature’s Promise, Publix, Roundy’s, Safeway, Schnucks, Shaws, Shop’n Save, Sweetbay, Tops, Wegmans, White Gem, Wild Harvest, Whole Foods
RESISTANCE TO ANTIBIOTICS
About two-thirds of disease-causing bacteria sampled from the contaminated chicken were resistant to at least one antibiotic, potentially making any resulting illness more difficult to treat. Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics. All of the antibiotics were effective against 32 percent of salmonella samples and 40 percent of the campylobacter samples, as compared to just 16 and 33 percent in 2007.
DIRTY CHICKEN & HOW THE USDA CAN HELP
Each year, salmonella and campylobacter from chicken and other food sources infect at least 3.4 million Americans, send 25,500 to hospitals, and kill about 500, according to estimates by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While both salmonella and campylobacter are known to cause intestinal distress, campylobacter can occasionally lead to meningitis, arthritis, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a severe neurological condition.
The USDA has yet to set a standard for campylobacter. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has long called for the USDA to set limits on both the percentage of chicken samples that can be contaminated with campylobacter and the levels of it that they can contain. The USDA has said that a risk assessment for campylobacter and draft performance standards would be ready by the year's end. It could take months to a year or more, however, for a proposed standard to become a final regulation and take effect. The agency does have a standard that requires chicken producers to test for salmonella.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Until chicken becomes cleaner, your best line of defense is good shopping and handling habits. Consumer Reports' tests are a snapshot in time and no type has been consistently low enough in pathogens to recommend over all others. So while buying cleaner chicken may improve your odds, your best defense is to follow these tips:
• Cook chicken to at least 165° F. Even if it’s no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer.
• Buy chicken last 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.
• Store chicken at 40° F or below if you’ll cook the chicken within a couple of days. 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.
For the full story, read How safe is that chicken? And find more ways to help ensure that your food is safe at BuySafeEatWell.org.