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.

  • Minkpuppy

    Let’s not overinflate the Staphylococcus Aureus link to animals here. Most likely, the staph bacteria came from HUMANS handling the meat and not the animal itself. Upwards of 50% or more humans are asymptomatic carriers of staph and most cases of MRSA and staph infections are hospital/community acquired and passed human-to-human or surface to human. You’re more likely to pick up Staph at the gym than you are from chicken or meat.
    The hazard in food is the staph toxin. The toxin is heat-resistant and can’t be killed by cooking, even if all the bacteria are wiped out during the cooking process. Staph toxin is primarily associated with potato salad and ham left out during picnics and holiday buffets and the staph bacteria gets there from the food preparers. The emphasis here needs to be educating the consumer and food handlers about preventing cross-contamination.

  • dangermaus

    There has always been salmonella on chicken – that’s why they there’s a universal recommendation that you to cook it through and clean any surfaces that it touched. This isn’t new.
    Does anyone actually think that recommendation would ever change, no matter how low they mandate the contamination rate be? They still say the same thing about pork even though there probably aren’t many inspectors that have ever even SEEN a trichina worm outside of a classroom.