“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.