Half of Raw Chicken Sold Contains Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria: What You Need to Know

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A Consumer Reports analysis found disturbingly high levels of salmonella and other bacteria in chicken sold at retailers and a new report [PDF] from the Pew Charitable Trusts calls for stronger U.S. food safety standards.

“When more than 500 people get sick from two outbreaks associated with chicken that meets federal safety standards, it is clear that those standards are not effectively protecting public health,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety project, in a statement.

Pew researchers looked at two outbreaks that came from chicken at Foster Farms in Calif., the sixth largest chicken producer in the U.S. The first occurred between June 2012 and May 2013 and infected 134 people  in Oregon and Washington with salmonella Heidelberg. Another outbreak started in March 2013, and is ongoing. So far, 389 people in 23 states and Puerto Rico were sickened from a variety of salmonella Heidelberg strains. Many of these strains are resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics.

The Pew researchers say that current food safety policies are not protecting Americans and need to be strengthened.

According to USA Today, until recently the U. S. Department of Agriculture did not require manufacturers to maintain germ-free conditions throughout the butchering and processing phases, and allowed for some contamination to occur, as long as the bacteria was removed by washing or with antimicrobial treatments. On Dec. 4, the USDA announced a Salmonella Action Plan and is working on an updated Poultry Processing Rule in n effort to prevent raw meat from becoming contaminated. “It’s not feasible to take a live animal and remove its outsides and its insides without there being contamination, but we can minimize it,” Dan Englejohn, deputy assistant administrator of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, told USA Today.

The Food and Drug Administration also released new antibiotic guidelines for agriculture last week, in order to limit use of the drugs to treating animals that are sick, rather than using them as a way to boost growth, as many farmers currently do. Those steps may be critical to ensuring that the chicken that consumers buy contains less of the potentially harmful bacteria that Consumer Reports found — 79.8% of the poultry from retailers contained enterococcus, 65.2% contained E. coli, and 10.8% had salmonella contamination.

Most of the bacteria won’t cause disease if the chicken is cooked properly, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, say health experts, but if more microbes are present, bacteria can be transferred to utensils and cooking areas and potentially expose people and make them sick.

To prevent contamination, the Pew report recommends the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service adopt stronger standards for keeping poultry safe by:

  • Updating limits for salmonella contamination for chicken regularly
  • Considering establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse
  • Conducting unannounced salmonella testing in chicken processing facilities.
  • Communicating outbreaks to consumers over public health alerts as early as possible.
  • Closing facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food, and keep them closed until adequate control measures are in place

Whether the USDA will implement these measures, and whether they will help to reduce microbial contamination of raw poultry, remains to be seen. In a statement responding to the reports, the National Chicken Council, a trade group for the poultry industry, noted that 99.9% of the 160 million servings of chicken Americans eat each day are safe. Mike Brown, the group’s president said, “Eliminating bacteria entirely is always the goal. But in reality, it’s simply not feasible.”