Consumer Reports has just released a report on the safety of chicken, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken”. This report is bound to get a lot of airplay.
There is little dispute over the fact that chicken can contain pathogenic bacteria…in fact, USDA on-going testing shows similar numbers. And while this report deals out some harsh treatment of your common grocery store chickens, it is important to note that even small farmed raised chicken can have pathogenic bacteria. In the Penn State study by Dr. Cutter and Josh Scheinberg where farmers’ market chicken were found to have a high prevalence of pathogens .
The CR report does point out good information: 1) no type/brand of chicken tested was really any better than any other in terms of the prevalence of pathogenic bacteria, and 2) that it is important for people to properly handle and prepare their poultry. This includes cleaning of surfaces that may have come in contact with raw poultry or their juices and that poultry be properly cooked to a temperature of 165ºF or higher.
But in this report, as well as in the mass media reports that followed, there is there over-the-top titles or commentary that will cause confusion among consumers. In the Chicago Tribune, there is “Superbug bacteria widespread in U.S. chicken: consumer group” and in Huffington Post, “Half of Supermarket Chicken Harbors Superbugs, Consumer Reports Finds”. Superbugs in my chicken…OMG!. The term ‘superbug’ is a loosely used term that generally is applied to organisms that are resistant to multi-antibiotics. The biggest concern for multi-antibiotic resistance organisms is in hospitals, where they can cause severe infections especially during surgery. But many of these species have not been shown to be a concern in food, outside of Salmonella. Antibiotic resistance is nothing new….it has been found in microorganisms that have never been exposed to antibiotics, so superbug status could have been applied to organisms long before antibiotics were used by people. And just having resistance to a few antibiotics is not as important as to which antibiotics the organisms are resistant. So the study, which is not a scientifically peer reviewed research (as far as we can tell), does not provide detail on these particulars, but rather throws out a generalized number that is latched on by the media without providing any qualifiers. So this nebulous term ‘superbug’ used in these reports does not advance the understanding of the general public, but rather serves to grab headlines through fear.
This is not to say that antibiotics should be used judiciously for animals. In fact the FDA is looking to put tougher restrictions on antibiotic use in food producing animals. As many farmers will point out however, antibiotic use is a lot lower than portrayed in the news media.
So yes, chicken can contain pathogenic bacteria. That is why it is important to properly handle it as well as cook it.