Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

A Long Way From Safe Chicken

“The USDA has moved at glacial speeds on controlling Campylobacter in the chicken industry,” so says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Ms. Smith DeWaal’s remark succinctly captures the gist of two recent Consumer Reports studies on the safety of store-bought whole chickens.  According to the studies, we still have a long way to go before we can feel anywhere close to safe about the quality of the chicken sold in our nation’s stores.

Once every few years, Consumer Reports conducts a national study on the safety of store-bought whole chickens.  To do this, the magazine purchases various brands of whole broiler chickens from stores across the country and sends them to a laboratory that tests the chickens for Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria.  The magazine’s 2007 study was, at the time, the most extensive national survey of contamination and antibiotic resistance in store-bought chicken ever published.  That study tested 525 fresh chickens from stores across 23 states, and included 10 organic and 12 nonorganic brands.  The most recent study, the results of which are discussed in the magazine’s January 2010 issue, tested 382 chickens from more than 100 stores across 22 states.  Both studies reached a similar conclusion: the majority of whole chickens sold in stores across the United States are contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria, and the government isn’t doing enough to fix the problem.

The consequences of lax governmental regulations, especially pertaining to Campylobacter, were readily apparent throughout the studies.  From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of chickens contaminated with either Salmonella or Campylobacter, or both, rose sharply, from 49 percent in 2003 to 83 percent in 2007.  By 2010, the number decreased to 66 percent.  Even though the recent numbers showed a slight decline, the fact that studies have shown that two thirds of our nation’s chickens are contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter is not reassuring news.  

Perhaps more frightening, the studies revealed that the majority of the bacteria found in store-bought whole chickens are resistant to one or more antibiotics.  The 2010 study indicated that 68 percent of all Salmonella reported, and 60 percent of Campylobacter, were antibiotic-resistant.  This establishes the sobering reality that current treatments for persons infected with these bacteria may soon be rendered obsolete if the government and producers do not act quickly to curb the rampant spread of antibiotic-resistant strains.

Throughout the studies, some brands performed better than others.  In 2007, it was found that premium brands labeled organic or raised without antibiotics and costing anywhere from $3 to $5 per pound, were in fact more likely to contain Salmonella than brands raised conventionally and costing $1 per pound.  The 2010 study, however, found that two major brands, Tyson and Foster Farms, yielded positive results for pathogens in over 80 percent of chickens tested.  Of the major brands tested in 2010, Purdue fared the best, with 56 percent of chickens testing free of both pathogens.

Although, in the studies, Salmonella numbers seem to be somewhat stabilized (albeit, at a much too high rate), the rate of Campylobacter contamination is spiraling out of control.  The 2007 study found Campylobacter in a stunning 81 percent of all birds tested.  In 2010, the number diminished to 62 percent.  Regardless, this is an unacceptable result and shows that stricter standards for Campylobacter must be implemented if there is ever to be any hope of ridding chicken of this pathogen.

The studies were not without bits of promising news.  The studies showed that air-chilling, a technique whereby chicken carcasses travel along a long track where they are misted, cooled with air, and then submerged in an antimicrobial bath, may yield at least some beneficial results.  In 2010, air-chilled broilers showed slightly improved numbers over conventionally handled birds, with about 40 percent testing positive for one or both pathogens.  

When considering all these numbers, it is important to remember that as few as 15 Salmonella and as few as 400 Campylobacter organisms can make you ill.  The USDA needs to implement testing standards for Campylobacter and establish harsher penalties for Salmonella contamination.   Moreover, the rampant problem of antibiotic resistance is creating a category of fortified pathogens that could easily lead to more serious illnesses and deaths if something is not done to address this issue.  

Obviously, everyone needs to ensure that the chicken they purchase is cooked to an appropriate temperature.  Still, I don’t feel safe knowing that one small slip-up will likely lead to cross-contamination with Salmonella or Campylobacter, no matter what brand of chicken I buy.  Someone needs to hold the chicken industry accountable for these appalling numbers.

© Food Safety News
  • hhamil

    Mr. Ferguson, the main problem I have with lawyers, like yourself and Ms. Smith DeWaal, writing articles like this are that I have never seen a single one of you ONLY report. You have ALWAYS ADVOCATED, just as you did in this case. As for your use of statistics, as someone with an undergraduate degree in math and who used it throughout my 35 year first career, to say that you are “selective” in your choice of the statistics is kind.
    As a result, in my experience, “studies” by lawyers almost never are anything more than platforms for advocacy. Unfortunately, more and more the Consumers Union is following your lead.
    It would take me days to respond to all of what you wrote; so I will only address a few of your article’s problems/errors.
    First, we, the American public, have never seen the study made by Consumers Union. We NEVER do. All we saw was the “Consumers Report” article ABOUT IT. That is unfortunate because then we can’t decide for ourselves what the study reveals.
    Second, what exactly does Ms. Smith DeWaal believe the USDA should do or is she just criticizing? Also, I would appreciate a cite or, at least, the context in which she made the statement.
    Third, what is the source of your description of “air-chilling” as “a technique whereby chicken carcasses travel along a long track where they are misted, cooled with air, and then submerged in an antimicrobial bath”? THAT IS A FALSE STATEMENT and I ask that you correct it via footnote. Air chilling NEVER involves being “submerged in an antimicrobial bath.” That is only done in the water cooling technique used by the vast majority of processors.
    According to the website version of the “Consumers Report” article you cite (http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/health-safety/chicken-safety/behind-the-numbers/chicken-safety-behind-the-numbers.htm), “The air-chilled option – These broilers are subjected to cold air, and sometimes mist, to inhibit microbial growth.” In my own case, I have seen the air chilling operation of one processor here in NC. It simply distributes the recently slaughtered chickens on racks in a walk in chiller and blows the cold air on them. This reduces cross contamination AND does NOT up the weight with absorbed or water sticking on the carcass.
    You further state, “air chilling…may yield at least some beneficial results. In 2010, air-chilled broilers showed slightly improved numbers over conventionally handled birds, with about 40 percent testing positive for one or both pathogens.” Where did you find this statement? I can’t find it anywhere on the web version of the article. Rather, it states, “As a group, the 32 air-chilled birds we analyzed, all of them also organic, proved ESPECIALLY CLEAN” [my emphasis].
    Another portion of the web version of the article (http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/health-safety/chicken-safety/overview/chicken-safety-ov.htm), states, “Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both [salmonella and campylobacter], but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.”
    As anyone with even a modest understanding of statistical sampling knows, this statement is VERY MISLEADING because only by sampling 100% of the broilers under an extremely rigorous technique could anyone “determine that all would be free of both pathogens. That fact is THE REASON that HACCP was created in the first place 50 years ago.
    The 8 Bell & Evans chickens were out of a total of 62 broiler from the 9 organic name brands; so my guess is that 100% of Bell & Evans broilers were clean. Sounds quite a bit different, doesn’t it, Mr. Ferguson?
    The keys to effective sampling are how the units are selected and the number chosen compared to the number available.
    Consumers Union only sampled 382 total broilers. Of those, 106 were certified organic and the remaining 272 were not. There were only 70 birds each from Perdue, Tyson & Foster Farms. That’s 70 versus the 8 for Bell & Evans. That is less than 9 times as many despite the fact that Perdue, Tyson ^ Foster Farms each produce hundreds of times as many chickens. Mathematically, the sample of Bell & Evans is clearly more significant than that of Perdue, Tyson & Foster Farms; so, if as “Consumers Reports” says, the “sample was too small,” then how are any of Consumers Union’s samples large enough? The answer is mathematically they can’t be.
    I will be happy to discuss any or all of this with you. If you will e-mail me, I’ll be happy to call you.

  • Harry Hamil

    Mr. Ferguson, the main problem I have with lawyers, like yourself and Ms. Smith DeWaal, writing articles like this are that I have never seen a single one of you ONLY report. You have ALWAYS ADVOCATED, just as you did in this case. As for your use of statistics, as someone with an undergraduate degree in math and who used it throughout my 35 year first career, to say that you are “selective” in your choice of the statistics is kind.
    As a result, in my experience, “studies” by lawyers almost never are anything more than platforms for advocacy. Unfortunately, more and more the Consumers Union is following your lead.
    It would take me days to respond to all of what you wrote; so I will only address a few of your article’s problems/errors.
    First, we, the American public, have never seen the study made by Consumers Union. We NEVER do. All we saw was the “Consumers Report” article ABOUT IT. That is unfortunate because then we can’t decide for ourselves what the study reveals.
    Second, what exactly does Ms. Smith DeWaal believe the USDA should do or is she just criticizing? Also, I would appreciate a cite or, at least, the context in which she made the statement.
    Third, what is the source of your description of “air-chilling” as “a technique whereby chicken carcasses travel along a long track where they are misted, cooled with air, and then submerged in an antimicrobial bath”? THAT IS A FALSE STATEMENT and I ask that you correct it via footnote. Air chilling NEVER involves being “submerged in an antimicrobial bath.” That is only done in the water cooling technique used by the vast majority of processors.
    According to the website version of the “Consumers Report” article you cite (http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/health-safety/chicken-safety/behind-the-numbers/chicken-safety-behind-the-numbers.htm), “The air-chilled option – These broilers are subjected to cold air, and sometimes mist, to inhibit microbial growth.” In my own case, I have seen the air chilling operation of one processor here in NC. It simply distributes the recently slaughtered chickens on racks in a walk in chiller and blows the cold air on them. This reduces cross contamination AND does NOT up the weight with absorbed or water sticking on the carcass.
    You further state, “air chilling…may yield at least some beneficial results. In 2010, air-chilled broilers showed slightly improved numbers over conventionally handled birds, with about 40 percent testing positive for one or both pathogens.” Where did you find this statement? I can’t find it anywhere on the web version of the article. Rather, it states, “As a group, the 32 air-chilled birds we analyzed, all of them also organic, proved ESPECIALLY CLEAN” [my emphasis].
    Another portion of the web version of the article (http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/health-safety/chicken-safety/overview/chicken-safety-ov.htm), states, “Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both [salmonella and campylobacter], but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.”
    As anyone with even a modest understanding of statistical sampling knows, this statement is VERY MISLEADING because only by sampling 100% of the broilers under an extremely rigorous technique could anyone “determine that all would be free of both pathogens. That fact is THE REASON that HACCP was created in the first place 50 years ago.
    The 8 Bell & Evans chickens were out of a total of 62 broiler from the 9 organic name brands; so my guess is that 100% of Bell & Evans broilers were clean. Sounds quite a bit different, doesn’t it, Mr. Ferguson?
    The keys to effective sampling are how the units are selected and the number chosen compared to the number available.
    Consumers Union only sampled 382 total broilers. Of those, 106 were certified organic and the remaining 272 were not. There were only 70 birds each from Perdue, Tyson & Foster Farms. That’s 70 versus the 8 for Bell & Evans. That is less than 9 times as many despite the fact that Perdue, Tyson ^ Foster Farms each produce hundreds of times as many chickens. Mathematically, the sample of Bell & Evans is clearly more significant than that of Perdue, Tyson & Foster Farms; so, if as “Consumers Reports” says, the “sample was too small,” then how are any of Consumers Union’s samples large enough? The answer is mathematically they can’t be.
    I will be happy to discuss any or all of this with you. If you will e-mail me, I’ll be happy to call you.

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com/contributors/alex-ferguson/ afergeson

    Mr. Hamil: Thank you for your comment on my article. I’d like to respond to some of your criticisms in an organized manner, hopefully clearing up some of the confusion about the article and my reasons for writing it.
    First of all, my articles are certainly intended to be op-ed advocacy pieces. I am not a reporter, and I do regard advocacy as one of my primary job duties. With that said, I’ll address your concerns in the order that they were raised:
    First, the article was never intended to be anything more than a reflection on the Consumer Reports articles and a collection of my thoughts on the implications of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken, no more, no less. As a result, I, like you, cannot predict the contents of the Consumers Union studies, I can only write about the information that is available to me.
    Second, the quote from Ms. Smith DeWaal was simply used to set the tone of the article, much in the same way it was used in the 2007 Consumer Reports article. It was not intended to be a reflection of Ms. Smith DeWaal’s actual opinion; it was merely a rhetorical device.
    Third, the description of air-chilling was a reference to the Bell & Evans operation described in the 2007 Consumer Reports article. I would direct you to the paragraph that starts, “But our tests show the current practices aren’t enough.” The article describes the system by stating the following, “The system whisks carcasses on two miles of track through chambers in which they’re misted and chilled with air, then submerged in an antimicrobial dip.”
    Fourth, the statement regarding the 2010 results from air-chilled broilers was taken directly from the 2010 article. In the section titled “Among our findings,” the article states “Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens.”
    I cannot address your statement regarding the Bell & Evans broilers, as my article did not make reference to that portion of the Consumer Reports article.
    Finally, I cannot comment on the accuracy of sample sizes versus production capacity, as I did not conduct these studies.
    I appreciate your comment. Please feel free to let me know if you have any more questions or suggestions.

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com/contributors/alex-ferguson/ Alex Ferguson

    Mr. Hamil: Thank you for your comment on my article. I’d like to respond to some of your criticisms in an organized manner, hopefully clearing up some of the confusion about the article and my reasons for writing it.
    First of all, my articles are certainly intended to be op-ed advocacy pieces. I am not a reporter, and I do regard advocacy as one of my primary job duties. With that said, I’ll address your concerns in the order that they were raised:
    First, the article was never intended to be anything more than a reflection on the Consumer Reports articles and a collection of my thoughts on the implications of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken, no more, no less. As a result, I, like you, cannot predict the contents of the Consumers Union studies, I can only write about the information that is available to me.
    Second, the quote from Ms. Smith DeWaal was simply used to set the tone of the article, much in the same way it was used in the 2007 Consumer Reports article. It was not intended to be a reflection of Ms. Smith DeWaal’s actual opinion; it was merely a rhetorical device.
    Third, the description of air-chilling was a reference to the Bell & Evans operation described in the 2007 Consumer Reports article. I would direct you to the paragraph that starts, “But our tests show the current practices aren’t enough.” The article describes the system by stating the following, “The system whisks carcasses on two miles of track through chambers in which they’re misted and chilled with air, then submerged in an antimicrobial dip.”
    Fourth, the statement regarding the 2010 results from air-chilled broilers was taken directly from the 2010 article. In the section titled “Among our findings,” the article states “Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens.”
    I cannot address your statement regarding the Bell & Evans broilers, as my article did not make reference to that portion of the Consumer Reports article.
    Finally, I cannot comment on the accuracy of sample sizes versus production capacity, as I did not conduct these studies.
    I appreciate your comment. Please feel free to let me know if you have any more questions or suggestions.

  • hhamil

    Thanks for the quick response, Mr. Ferguson. I agree that you only responded to “some” of my criticisms. I would appreciate a full response to the rest. In the meantime, I will comment on what you did write in the order you wrote it.
    Your piece is labeled a “contributed article” not an “opinion” or “op-ed.” I wish it had been and would appreciate “Food Safety News” labeling all of your submissions as such.
    I’m confused by your statement about your intentions. Your “op-ed” certainly appears to be an analysis rather than just “thoughts” to me, beginning with its title, “A Long Way From Safe Chicken.”
    My primary purpose was to show the need for a careful critique of both what you wrote AND the “Consumer Reports” article.
    Thanks for the source of the Caroline Smith DeWaal quote. I certainly would say it is “a reflection of Ms. Smith DeWaal’s actual opinion” IN 2007 but I find it very questionable to use it over 3 years later “to set the tone of the article, much in the same way it was used in the 2007 Consumer Reports article” without having confirmed its current accuracy with her. Also, it was NOT used in that way at all in the 2007 article. Rather, it was at the end of a section entitled, “Holes in the Safety Net,” and was support for the point that “Consumer Reports” was trying to make.
    Your quoting of the 2007 article about “air-chilling” shows the sloppiness of “Consumer Reports” work and how it misleads the public. Its description combines the air-chilling system (which is only chilling with air) and an anti-microbial dip so that readers believe that “air-chilling” includes both.
    Whenever multiple carcasses are dipped in a liquid, the opportunity for cross contamination is increased; so, despite its purpose, the dip takes away one of the advantages of the air-chilling. Furthermore, the fact that the dip is “anti-microbial” doesn’t mean that it kills ALL microbes. In fact, that may be one of the reasons for the increasing problem with campylobacter. An anti-microbial dip for salmonella MIGHT spread campylobacter.
    Thanks for pointing out the source of the statement about the air-chilled broilers overall contamination rate of “about 40%.” I missed it.
    I find your last 2 statements dissembling. You don’t need to have conducted the studies nor referred to the Bell & Evans broilers in your op-ed to respond to the information I provided. It is as if you aren’t open to there being chicken that is “safe” or that “Consumer Reports’” advocacy might have skewed its reporting of its study. Clearly, your informing us of the “Consumer Reports” article demonstrates that you believed it merited attention. But, when I questioned its methodology and its qualification of the clean record of Bell & Evans with “but our sample was too small,” you respond that you “cannot comment on the accuracy of sample sizes versus production capacity, as [you] did not conduct these studies.” Of course you can comment in both cases. That is exactly what peer reviewing is all about.
    Finally, I will give an example of what I regard as “Consumer Reports’” skewing its study.
    In its 2007 study you linked above, “Consumer Reports” noted “None of Ranger’s 10 samples harbored salmonella.” The incidence of campylobacter wasn’t reported. In 2010, Ranger was NOT one of the brands tested despite still being on the market.
    This is my last comment.

  • Harry Hamil

    Thanks for the quick response, Mr. Ferguson. I agree that you only responded to “some” of my criticisms. I would appreciate a full response to the rest. In the meantime, I will comment on what you did write in the order you wrote it.
    Your piece is labeled a “contributed article” not an “opinion” or “op-ed.” I wish it had been and would appreciate “Food Safety News” labeling all of your submissions as such.
    I’m confused by your statement about your intentions. Your “op-ed” certainly appears to be an analysis rather than just “thoughts” to me, beginning with its title, “A Long Way From Safe Chicken.”
    My primary purpose was to show the need for a careful critique of both what you wrote AND the “Consumer Reports” article.
    Thanks for the source of the Caroline Smith DeWaal quote. I certainly would say it is “a reflection of Ms. Smith DeWaal’s actual opinion” IN 2007 but I find it very questionable to use it over 3 years later “to set the tone of the article, much in the same way it was used in the 2007 Consumer Reports article” without having confirmed its current accuracy with her. Also, it was NOT used in that way at all in the 2007 article. Rather, it was at the end of a section entitled, “Holes in the Safety Net,” and was support for the point that “Consumer Reports” was trying to make.
    Your quoting of the 2007 article about “air-chilling” shows the sloppiness of “Consumer Reports” work and how it misleads the public. Its description combines the air-chilling system (which is only chilling with air) and an anti-microbial dip so that readers believe that “air-chilling” includes both.
    Whenever multiple carcasses are dipped in a liquid, the opportunity for cross contamination is increased; so, despite its purpose, the dip takes away one of the advantages of the air-chilling. Furthermore, the fact that the dip is “anti-microbial” doesn’t mean that it kills ALL microbes. In fact, that may be one of the reasons for the increasing problem with campylobacter. An anti-microbial dip for salmonella MIGHT spread campylobacter.
    Thanks for pointing out the source of the statement about the air-chilled broilers overall contamination rate of “about 40%.” I missed it.
    I find your last 2 statements dissembling. You don’t need to have conducted the studies nor referred to the Bell & Evans broilers in your op-ed to respond to the information I provided. It is as if you aren’t open to there being chicken that is “safe” or that “Consumer Reports’” advocacy might have skewed its reporting of its study. Clearly, your informing us of the “Consumer Reports” article demonstrates that you believed it merited attention. But, when I questioned its methodology and its qualification of the clean record of Bell & Evans with “but our sample was too small,” you respond that you “cannot comment on the accuracy of sample sizes versus production capacity, as [you] did not conduct these studies.” Of course you can comment in both cases. That is exactly what peer reviewing is all about.
    Finally, I will give an example of what I regard as “Consumer Reports’” skewing its study.
    In its 2007 study you linked above, “Consumer Reports” noted “None of Ranger’s 10 samples harbored salmonella.” The incidence of campylobacter wasn’t reported. In 2010, Ranger was NOT one of the brands tested despite still being on the market.
    This is my last comment.