We tested more than 300 raw chicken breasts from stores across the country.
When you shop at your favorite grocery store, you probably assume that the food on display is safe to take home. But in the poultry aisle, that simple assumption could make you very sick. Consumer Reports’ recent analysis of more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased at stores across the U.S. found potentially harmful bacteria lurking in almost all of the chicken, including organic brands. In fact, we were conducting our research when news of thenational salmonella outbreaklinked to three Foster Farms chicken plants became public. In that case 389 people were infected, and 40 percent of them were hospitalized, double the usual percentage in most outbreaks linked to salmonella. (Read aboutsustainable alternatives when it comes to raising chickensand watch our video on the use ofantibiotics in animals.)
What’s going on with the nation’s most popular meat? (Americans buy an estimated 83 pounds per capita annually.) Though 48 million people fall sick every year from eating food tainted with salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and other contaminants, “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity,” according to an analysis of outbreaks from 1998 through 2008 by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here’s what you should know before buying your next package of chicken.
It’s unrealistic to expect that the uncooked chicken you buy won’t contain any potentially harmful bacteria. That’s one reason we advise you to prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food and to cook it to at least 165˚ F. (Check ourreviews of meat thermometers.) Yet some bacteria are more worrisome than others—and our latest tests produced troubling findings. More than half of the samples contained fecal contaminants. And about half of them harbored at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics.
Public-health officials say they think that the resistance to antibiotics in general is such a major concern that in September theCDC released a landmark reportoutlining the dire threat it poses to our health. Antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. And if antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue their scary spread, they could lead to deadly infections after routine surgery or even a seemingly innocuous cut because the drugs that doctors prescribe will have lost their effectiveness.
Our tests showed that those resistant bacteria are commonly found in chicken at your local grocery store. We collected samples in July 2013, months before the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak drew a public-health alert from the Department of Agriculture (USDA). It turned out that we had purchased a package of the tainted chicken and that our tests found a strain of salmonella (known as Heidelberg) that matched one of those linked to the outbreak.
Salmonella bacteria come in many strains. To understand their differences, think of all of the different breeds of dogs, says Lance Price, Ph.D., a professor in environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. “All dogs are the same species, but a Chihuahua and a pit bull behave differently,” he says. The drug-resistant Heidelberg strain of salmonella associated with the Foster Farms outbreak is more likely than other strains to cause disease. Antibiotic resistance by itself doesn’t make a pathogen more virulent, but when it occurs in a virulent strain such as the Heidelberg, something inherently dangerous suddenly becomes even worse—a bacterium that Price says acts “like a pit bull with rabies.”
Most of the illnesses caused by Foster Farms chicken produced symptoms typical of any salmonella infection—nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a low-grade fever, says Christopher Braden, M.D., director of the division of foodborne, waterborne, and environmental diseases at the CDC. What was different was that the outbreak sent about twice as many people to a hospital as a typical salmonella outbreak does. About 20 percent of people with salmonella end up hospitalized; almost 40 percent of those sickened by the Foster Farms-produced chicken did, Braden says.
Rick Schiller of San Jose, Calif., was rushed to the E.R. after being sickened by chicken. Photo: Jeff Singer
Rick Schiller, 51, was one of those unlucky victims. In September the San Jose, Calif., resident woke up at 2 a.m. “I’ve never felt so sick in my life,” he said. In addition to vomiting and diarrhea, he had terrible stomach pain. His symptoms worsened during the next few days, and his abdominal pain became so severe that his fiancée rushed him to an emergency room.
Schiller’s doctor ordered a stool culture, which revealed salmonella Heidelberg. It was one of the strains identified in the Foster Farms outbreak. Schiller had bought two packages of Foster Farms chicken thighs, and his fiancée prepared a meal for him using one of them. The other package, which was still in his freezer, had a plant code that matched one associated with the outbreak