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97 percent of chicken contaminated with bacteria, Consumer Reports finds

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chicken is the most popular meat in America, but Consumer Reports' tests of more than 300 raw chicken breasts found potentially harmful bacteria in 97 percent of their samples.

It's something Rick Schiller knows all too well. He wound up in the hospital with severe abdominal pain after eating chicken contaminated with salmonella.

"I thought I wasn't going to make it there for a little bit. I was that sick," Schiller recalled. "I was so sick I couldn't move around, I didn't want to talk, I just wanted to lay there."

Consumer Reports tested the chicken for six different bacteria, including salmonella and campylobacter, which are common causes of food poisoning, as well as E. coli and enterococcus, which are typical measures of fecal contamination.

More than half of the chicken breasts were tainted with bacteria like E. coli and enterococcus. All the major brands tested - including Perdue, Tyson, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim's - contained worrisome bacteria, as did smaller brands and packages labeled "organic" or even "no antibiotics."

"Most troubling, when we looked at all of the chicken breasts we tested, about half harbored at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more common families of antibiotics," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports.

"The problem with that is that when you give these animals antibiotics every single day and it goes out into the manure, you're literally proliferating resistant organisms that aren't killed by those antibiotics but rather become resistant to them," she added.

When it comes to preparing chicken, you can't be too careful.

"Our tests did not reveal any better choice, despite some differences among brands and types," said Rangan. "You really want to make sure to cook chicken until it reaches 165 degrees in the center."

Rangan says while only 37 percent of us have a meat thermometer, 85 percent feel they're cooking meat thoroughly.

She stresses the importance of washing hands well after handling raw chicken. And don't wash raw chicken under the faucet because it can spread bacteria and increase the risk of illness. The heat of the oven will kill the bacteria.

And a separate cutting board for poultry is a must.

One last tip: when you're shopping, buy meat and chicken last to keep it cold and avoid bacteria overgrowth.

The FDA just issued new voluntary guidelines limiting the use of antibiotics with chicken. Consumer Reports says that's a good first step but there's so much more to be done.

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