A report released Thursday indicates that just about all chicken sold in U.S. stores contains harmful bacteria, and nearly half are tainted with a so-called superbug that's resistant to antibiotics.
The Consumer Reports study, its most comprehensive to date on poultry, tested raw chicken breasts purchased at retail outlets nationwide for six bacteria, then checked for antibiotic resistance. The results showed nearly half of the samples were contaminated with at least one bacterium resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, what's known as a superbug. Slightly more than 10 percent were tainted with two superbugs.
That finding is cause for alarm, said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports National Research Center.
"We're in a public health crisis,"
Rangan said. "Pharmaceutical companies are not making new
The report coincided with the release of a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts on Thursday, criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's response to two salmonella outbreaks traced to Foster Farms chicken. A spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said the reports "confirm the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent food-borne illness."Deciphering labels
In its study, Consumer Reports purchased 316 chicken breasts from national chains, big-box stores and regional markets in 26 states and tested them for six bacteria: salmonella, campylobacter and staphylococcus aureus, which are common causes of food poisoning; E. coli and enterococcus, which indicate fecal contamination; and klebsiella pneumoniae, a bug that can cause infections such as pneumonia.
At least 65 percent of the samples were tainted with fecal contaminants, the study says. Enterococcus turned up on nearly 80 percent of the samples, followed by E. coli on more than 65 percent.
Campylobacter turned up on 43 percent of the samples, klebsiella pneumoniae on nearly 14 percent, salmonella on nearly 11 percent, and about 9 percent tainted by staphylococcus aureus.
The sampling included 252 breasts produced by major brands, including Perdue, Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms and Tyson. The rest, including 24 organic samples, were from companies that do not use antibiotics in raising chickens.
The study found no significant difference between the two in terms of contamination: Both organic and conventional chicken were tainted with potentially harmful pathogens.
But the report says there are good reasons to buy antibiotic-free chicken: It supports farmers who don't use unnecessary drugs, and preserves the effectiveness of antibiotics.
People worried about food poisoning, however, should treat chicken as a hazard in the kitchen.
"Consumers need to be really vigilant about hygiene," Rangan said.
That means washing hands, pans, surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water; wrapping poultry so that juices don't drip in the refrigerator; and cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although health officials have long warned about the dangers of contaminated chicken, people keep getting sick. In the latest outbreak traced to salmonella-tainted Foster Farms chicken, at least 416 people were infected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said some of the strains of Salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak were resistant to antibiotics. The CDC said 40 percent of those sickened had to be hospitalized, about double the usual rate associated with salmonella.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can lead to higher hospitalization rates or stymie treatment, according to the CDC.
The agency sounded the alarm on the threat posed by superbugs in September, estimating that antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken 2 million people a year, killing 23,000.
Consumer Reports wants the meat and poultry industry to stop using antibiotics to promote growth. The Food and Drug Administration released a proposal this month calling on pharmaceutical companies to change the labels on antibiotics to restrict their use in meat and poultry to treating illness. But the rule would be voluntary.
The Consumer Reports study also recommends that the National Organic Program eliminate a provision that allows eggs to be injected with antibiotics then later be sold after birth as organic.
The consumer advocacy group called on the USDA to ban strains of salmonella that are resistant to multiple antibiotics, drop a plan to allow poultry plants to speed up production, and set strict levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts.
It also said Congress should give the USDA authority to recall meat and poultry products tied to outbreaks.
Rangan said the battle against contamination should shift from slaughterhouses to the farm, where it starts.
"We are faced with an industry that is doing end-of-the line Band-Aid solutions and dunking chickens in chlorine rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem," Rangan said.
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