Most consumers would be surprised that USDA/FSIS’s website explains chicken inspections:

All chickens found in retail stores are either inspected by USDA or by State systems, which have standards equivalent to the Federal government. Each chicken and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The “Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” seal insures the chicken is free from visible signs of disease.

How many of us can see bacteria or viruses through visual inspection?  Few, I think, take a microscope to the grocery store.  In fact, according to the former head of FSIS, Dr. Richard Raymond, on March 16, 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced stricter standards that it hopes will reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination of raw broiler chicken and turkey carcasses.

The new standard for Salmonella contamination of broiler chicken carcasses is 7.5%. This new standard will go into effect in July 2011. Until then, it will remain at 20%, the standard set way back in 1996.

A few years ago, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that “[t]he U.S. Department of Agriculture requires Salmonella testing at all poultry plants, but up to 20 percent of the chicken sampled can test positive.” At one poultry plant “[o]n average, about 5 percent of chicken tests positive for Salmonella.” However, “Good Morning America tested 100 packages [of chicken] and found that, for packages of chicken parts, 20 percent tested positive for Salmonella. For ground chicken, 54 percent tested positive.

In February I blogged about chicken testing being done in London, where 20 grocery store chickens tested positive for E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Acinetobacter baumannii, Mirabilis, or Micrococcus luteus.  A recent investigation by Canada’s CBC TV news found two-thirds of samples collected at major grocery stores in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal were positive for bacteria resistant to at least one antibiotic.  Sound lovely?

Also, interestingly, according to a recent study in the Journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, organically raised chickens carry less fecal Salmonella and anti-microbial Salmonella than conventionally raised chickens.  Salmonella prevalence in fecal samples were 5.6 percent and 38.8 percent from organic and conventional farms, respectively.

Prompted by these previous tests, from ABC, London, Canada and the Journal (and FSIS looking only at “visible signs of disease”), I hired a Seattle-area lab to test chickens from several retail stores in and around Seattle in the last month — even before the recent PEW tests. I plan on releasing the test results this week.