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Playing chicken with salmonella

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Given the E. coli scares of the last few months, it’s no surprise that a majority of Americans responding to a recent online survey by Harris Interactive were concerned about food safety. 

According to Harris, at least some of those people also have an increased interest in locally grown foods, which makes sense; there's something reassuring about the face-to-face exchange you have with the local farmers you see each week at the market or who deliver your CSA basket of organic produce that's missing when you get your food from mega-growers 1,000 miles away. 

But in its January 2007 issue, Consumer Reports published the results of their own tests of 525 fresh, whole chickens bought at stores around the country. Their findings? Organic or antibiotics-free chickens "were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers." 

[%image chicken showCredit=true float='left' width='250' caption='Naked lunch.']

The truly shocking numbers? That 83 percent of the chickens purchased, bought "at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and natural-food stores," harbored salmonella or campylobacter, another nasty bug. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the two diseases together sicken about 3.4 million people and kill 700 in the U.S. every year. 

Consumer Reports also tested its chickens for antibiotic resistance, a common problem in chickens reared on drug cocktails to ward off disease. Again, a whopping 84 percent of the chickens turned out to be resistant to at least one type of antibiotic. Which means that if you fall ill from eating chicken, the usual drugs to make you better might not work.

The USDA slammed Consumer Reports for "junk science," claiming the study wasn't broad enough. But the USDA had already published its own salmonella-study results, in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, stating that the incidence of positive salmonella samples in fresh broiler chickens had increased fourfold between 2000 and 2005, and that a type of salmonella once found primarily in eggs is now appearing in broiler chickens as well. 

Meekly, the USDA report suggested voluntary regulations within the meat and poultry industries to solve the problem. 

What's a shopper to do? Well, the usual: wash everything thoroughly, cook chicken to 165 degrees to kill salmonella, and keep the raw and the cooked separate. And talk to your local purveyors; if their answers don't satisfy, don't buy.

chicken, l