Reports: high levels of bacteria in chicken, weak USDA oversight

97% contains harmful bacteria, 50% contains fecal matter Photo: USDA

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2013—Two reports released Thursday raise questions regarding the safety of the chicken consumed in the U.S. and criticize the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight of the poultry industry.

Every year Americans consume an estimated 83 pounds of chicken per person. Of the 48 million people that get sick from eating food tainted with salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity.”

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Two alarming reports

Two reports, “The high cost of cheap chicken,” by Consumer Reports, and “Weaknesses in FSIS’ Salmonella Regulation,” by the Pew Charitable Trusts, highlight the hidden dangers of eating the most popular meat in the country.

For the Consumer Reports study (also funded by Pew), researchers purchased 316 raw chicken breasts at major grocery chains, big-box stores, and regional markets in 26 states during July 2013. The samples tested included conventionally produced, antibiotic-free, and organic chicken.

Researchers tested samples taken from the chicken breasts for six types of bacteria: salmonella, campylobacter, staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, enterococcus and klebsiella pneumoniae. When bacteria were found, additional tests were preformed to determine strain and antibiotic resistance.

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Potentially harmful bacteria were found in almost all the chicken tested (97 percent), including samples branded organic. This finding in itself is not surprising, as raw chicken is expected to have some bacteria.

However, over 50 percent of the samples contained fecal contaminants (enterococcus and E. coli), which can cause blood and urinary tract infections. Enterococcus was found in 79.8 percent of samples, while E. coli was found in 65.2 percent. 

Additionally, almost half of the samples (49.7 percent) were also found to contain at least one bacterium resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics. Over 11.5 percent of samples contained two or more of these multidrug resistant bacteria. See full results here.

In the second report, “Weaknesses in FSIS’ Salmonella Regulation,” researchers analyzed two multistate salmonella outbreaks (the first from June 2012 to April 2013 and the second from March 2013 and ongoing) linked to chicken. Researchers then evaluated federal regulations intended to control salmonella outbreaks in poultry products.

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The two multistate outbreaks—traced to Foster Farms, the country’s sixth-largest poultry producer—caused at least 523 cases of illness in 29 states and Puerto Rico. However, up to 15,000 people may have been infected with salmonella but were not diagnosed, according to Pew and the CDC.

According to the Pew report, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert for the March 2013 outbreak, but did not do so for the first occurrence. FSIS has also failed to ask Foster Farms to issue a recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated products in connection to either outbreak.

Even though over 42,000 annual cases of salmonella are reported to public health officials, CDC estimates that actual infections may be much higher. 

Despite what is currently known about salmonella, Pew found that existing federal regulations for poultry production do not treat salmonella as a significant public health threat in the same way they do other pathogens like E. coli.

For example, only whole chickens are subject to FSIS salmonella performance standards, which set limits on salmonella contamination. Despite being sold and purchased more widely than whole chickens, however, there are no salmonella performance standards—and therefore no limits on salmonella contamination—for chicken parts.

Additionally, Pew found that FSIS does not have the power to close a plant based on results of salmonella testing. Testing is only performed once per year and plants are given advance notice. Moreover, “best performing” plants are only tested once every two years. 

Pew also found that FSIS imposes no regulations at the farm level to reduce salmonella contamination before slaughter, where chickens are likely to come in contact with fecal matter that may adhere to skin and end up on a consumer’s plate. Under current regulations, poultry plants are not required to consider salmonella as a “hazard likely to occur,” or a risk that should be controlled during production.

Both studies proposed stricter oversight by USDA and urged Congress to pass legislation granting the agency more power, including mandatory recall authority, which, unlike the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA currently does not have.

Given that USDA has proposed to reduce the number of inspections and allow poultry processing plants to speed up productions lines, more salmonella outbreaks are likely in the future unless policies change.

Why buy organic?

One surprising result of the Consumer Reports study was that harmful and antibiotic resistant bacteria were also found in samples labeled antibiotic-free and organic. This is attributed in part to a loophole that allows farmers to use antibiotics in eggs up to the first day of life, even in chickens later grown as “organic.”

In a letter to Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Consumer Reports’ advocacy arm stresses the importance of eliminating this loophole, reports Politico.

Even though in terms of bacteria there is no apparent advantage to spending the extra money on chicken labeled antibiotic free or organic, Consumer Reports suggests buying organic and antibiotic free despite the price difference because buying these products supports farmers who do not use antibiotics unnecessarily and helps preserve the effectiveness of these drugs.

Criticism and reaction

The Chicken industry was quick to answer to the reports. In a detailed response, the National Chicken Council (NCC) stated that all bacteria can be killed through proper cooking and handling. NCC also stated it was not feasible to eliminate all naturally occurring bacteria in chicken and emphasized a decline in E. coli and salmonella rates in poultry plants over the last 10 years.

“Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day, and 99.99 percent of those servings are consumed safely. Unfortunately, this particular statistic was left out of the ‘in depth’ piece recently published by Consumer Reports,” said NCC.

Others argue that when compared to similar studies performed in other countries, the amount of bacteria found in U.S. chicken is relatively low. Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, told Politico that the numbers were not surprising.

“It’s pretty sensational,” Doyle said. “But the numbers aren’t remarkable. They also did this study in July; that’s peak time for salmonella.”

FSIS is also defending its actions.

 “The Consumer Union and Pew reports confirm the need for measures already underway at FSIS to prevent food-borne illness,” a spokesperson from the agency said in a press release. “The additional requirements in the modernization proposal, such as microbial testing, contamination prevention, and stronger food safety inspection activities will allow FSIS to make significant progress in reducing illnesses.”

Many, however, are not convinced.

“These studies draw a troubling conclusion: that the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat is more widespread than we thought, and our federal regulatory agencies simply refuse to hold the industry accountable,” Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y), said to the Washington Post. Rep. Slaughter has been a longtime supporter of limiting the use of antibiotics in raising livestock. 


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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