WASHINGTON — In the wake of a report on the incidence of bacterial pathogens on chickens at retail, the National Chicken Council is strongly defending the industry.
The report, based on a survey conducted by Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union's publication, Consumer Reports, shows that two-thirds of the fresh broilers tested were contaminated with either salmonella or campylobacter or both. When that news was released last week, NCC quickly issued a statement indicating chicken is safe if handled correctly.
Defending chicken processors — 95% of which are members of the trade organization — NCC cites a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study that shows processing is effective in reducing pathogen levels.
“They [Consumers Union] are disregarding the progress the industry has made,” Richard Lobb, National Chicken Council's director of communications, told SN.
“By objective standards, we are doing a better and better job,” he added. “We're extremely cognizant of the need to supply fresh chicken with as good a microbiological profile as we can.”
The Consumer Reports survey, conducted by an outside laboratory, showed one brand of chicken — Perdue — having considerably less contamination than other brands. The category showing the least contamination was organic and air-chilled.
“This was the first time [compared to similar CR studies] that one brand and one category stood out across the board,” Jean Halloran, CU's director of food policy initiatives, told SN.
The recent study involved testing 382 whole broilers bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states.
The tests show a modest improvement with comparison to a similar Consumer Reports study published in January 2007, when the magazine found the pathogens in eight out of 10 broilers.
In the new study, campylobacter was in 62% of the chickens, salmonella was in 14%, and both bacteria were in 9%. Only 34% of the birds were clear of both. That's double the percentage of products found free of those pathogens when Consumer Reports did its 2007 study.
About 60% of air-chilled chickens tested in the most recent study were free of both salmonella and campylobacter. Of the Perdue brand, 56% were free of both pathogens. Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, but only 43% of those birds were also free of campylobacter.
In the recent test, Consumer Reports also found that about two-thirds of the micro-organisms were resistant to at least one antibiotic, which presents a further problem for consumers, the study says.
Consumer Reports has been measuring contamination in store-bought chickens since 1998, and has published at least two previous featured reports in the magazine.
“We weren't surprised by the overall results of this most recent survey, because we knew that chicken is still pretty contaminated,” Halloran told SN last week.
All segments of the supply chain, as well as consumers, need to be constantly vigilant to make sure the product is handled correctly and that proper temperatures are maintained, she said.
While the USDA has tests and minimal standards it requires chicken producers to adhere to for salmonella, the agency has yet to set a standard for campylobacter.