In its most comprehensive tests of meat and poultry to date, Consumer Reports found bacteria that could make consumers sick on nearly all of the 316 raw chicken breasts purchased at retail nationwide. The full report, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken,” is featured in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.
While Consumer Reports has consistently been testing chicken for more than 15 years, this is the first time it has looked at the contamination rates for six different bacteria – enterococcus (79.8 percent), E. coli (65.2 percent), campylobacter (43 percent), klebsiella pneumonia (13.6 percent), salmonella (10.8 percent), and staphylococcus aureus (9.2 percent). It also evaluated every bacterium for antibiotic resistance and found that about half the chicken samples harbored at least one multidrug-resistant bacteria.
As part of this investigation, the Consumer Reports National Research Center recently conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,005 respondents about their understanding of labels and their handling and cooking habits for chicken.
The survey found that more than half of respondents thought that “natural” chickens did not receive antibiotics or genetically modified feed and more than one-third thought “natural” was equal to “organic,” all of which are not true. ”Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant.
When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “Our survey also shows that consumers are making buying decisions based on label claims that they believe are offering them additional value when that is not in fact the case. The marketplace clearly needs to change to meet consumer expectations.”
Consumer Reports’ study comes at a time when 48 million people are falling sick and 3,000 dying in the United States each year from eating tainted food, with more deaths being attributed to poultry than any other commodity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other highlights from Consumer Reports’ findings include:
• The majority of samples tested positive for one of the common measures of fecal contamination – Enterococcus and E. coli. More advanced testing showed that 17.5 percent of the E. coli are the type (known as ExPEC) that have genes that make these bacteria more likely to cause urinary tract infections.
• About half of chicken samples contained at least one bacterium resistant to three or more antibiotics, commonly referred to as multidrug-resistant bacteria or “superbug.” Slightly more than 11 percent contained two or more multidrug-resistant bacteria.
• Bacteria were more resistant to antibiotics approved for use in chicken production for growth promotion and disease prevention than those not approved for those uses.
• One sample was a Foster Farms chicken breast from a plant associated with the recent outbreak. The sample contained a Salmonella Heidelberg that was a match to one of the outbreak strains. Consumer Reports released its results about this sample in October 2013 immediately after it was confirmed.
Since 1998, Consumer Reports’ tests of chicken have shown salmonella rates have not changed much, ranging between 11 and 16 percent. ”We know especially for salmonella, other countries have reduced their rates. In fact, systemic solutions were implemented throughout the European Union. Government data show that in 2010, 22 countries met the European target for less than or equal to 1 percent contamination of two important types of salmonella in their broiler flocks. There is no reason why the United States can’t do the same,” concludes Rangan. For more information on what has been done in Europe and different sustainability practices, visit www.ConsumerReports.org/cro/chicken0214.
What the Government Can Do
“We are looking to the government to ensure the safety and sustainability of the entire food supply,” said Rangan. “We need to attack the root causes of the problems. Without a government focus on effective solutions, meat safety will continue to be compromised.”
In order to reduce rates of bacterial contamination as European counterparts have done and preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, calls on the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), Congress, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do the following:
• Congress should give the USDA authority to mandate a recall of meat and poultry products, especially when product from a plant matches that of a human outbreak strain. Currently, it cannot mandate any recall.
• The FDA should prohibit antibiotic use in food animals except for the treatment of sick ones. FDA’s action last week giving voluntary guidance to drug companies to end labeling of antibiotics for growth promotion uses is an important first step, but is far from what is needed overall. An effective way to ensure that antibiotics are only used to treat sick animals is for Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.
• The USDA should classify strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and known to have caused disease as “adulterants,” so that inspectors look for those strains routinely and when found, the products cannot be sold.
• The USDA should move quickly to set strict levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts. The agency expects to put that proposal out for public review and feedback this year. As part of this process, the USDA should publish a list of meat products like chicken parts for which it has no performance standards and indicate a timetable for establishing them. We say these standards can’t come soon enough.
• The USDA’s proposed rule to increase maximum line speeds and reduce the number of USDA inspectors at slaughter plants should be dropped.
• The National Organic Program should eliminate the loophole allowing antibiotics to be used in the chicken eggs up until the first day of life in organic chicken broilers.
• USDA should ban the use of the “natural” claim, which is not a meaningful label, and require claims on meat to be certified and inspected.
What Consumers Can Do
Consumer Reports advises consumers to follow these tips to ensure proper handling and cooking of chicken:
• Wash hands when handling any type of meat or poultry – frozen or fresh – before touching anything else and wash them for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water – even if it means multiple washings.
• Use a cutting board designated strictly for raw meat and poultry. When done, place it in the dishwasher directly from the counter or wash with hot soapy water.
• Don’t run chicken under the faucet before cooking.
• When cooking, use a meat thermometer and always cook chicken to 165°F.
• When shopping, buy meat last; keeping chicken cold delays bacteria overgrowth. Place chicken in a plastic bag to prevent other items from contamination.
• Buy chicken raised without antibiotics to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs; avoid meaningless labels like “natural” and “free range”.
Note: Support for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts. See also Pew’s Weaknesses in FSIS’s Salmonella Regulation.