Nov. 30, 2009 -- The bad news from a new study is that two thirds of store-bought chicken was found to be contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria. The good news is that, believe it or not, the numbers are better than two years ago, when eight out of 10 chickens were found to contain pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter.
The study, to be published in the upcoming issue of Consumer Reports, tested 382 broiler chickens bought from 100 stores around the country. Some brand-name chickens -- Tyson and Foster Farms -- fared poorly, with salmonella and campylobacter found in more than 80 percent of the samples. Perdue chickens did a little better -- 56 percent of chickens tested were found to be free of both pathogens. According to the study, organic "air-chilled" broilers seemed to be a consumer's best bet because 60 percent of those chickens checked in bacteria-free.
Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say more than a million people have salmonella poisoning every year from a variety of causes. About 25,000 people get so sick they seek treatment at a hospital and about 500 people die every year. Symptoms of an infection generally show up 5-7 days after contamination and can include diarrhea, stomach cramping and fever.
The news that everyday store-bought chickens can be contaminated with harmful bacteria drew a loud "ewww" from several moms shopping for chickens at a local supermarket in Ashland, Mass.
Linda Epstein said she was looking for a broiler chicken to feed her family of four because "it's easy to make and my fussy kids will actually eat chicken."
Epstein said she had "no idea" that campylobacter and salmonella could be present in such a high percentage of chickens. "It really kind of makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it," she said.
Consumer Reports: Chicken Laced with Bacteria
As you might imagine, those words are not music to the ears of the major chicken distributors.
Tyson Foods provided a statement to ABCNews.com calling into question the testing methods of Consumer Reports. "We have confidence in the safety of our chicken but not in the testing by Consumer Reports. Since the Consumer Reports study only confirms the presence of bacteria and not the number it is not a true indication of the safety of our products…the small sample size is also a concern."
A statement also detailed the company's efforts to increase the safety of its poultry operations which include "the use of antimicrobial rinses, similar to those used in mouthwashes, as well as organic acids."
The National Chicken Council released a statement that said, "Chicken is safe. Like all fresh foods, raw chickens may have some microorganisms present, but these are destroyed by the heat of normal cooking."
But the problem with food-borne bacteria is not just in the cooking. Often an infection can occur because of unsafe washing and handling practices in the kitchen.
Martin Bucknavage, a food safety specialist, at the Penn State College of Agriculture, said cross-contamination – for instance, when salmonella bacteria shows up on a cutting board – can be the biggest danger consumers face. "We have to keep reminding people to wash and clean their utensils, cutting boards and counters. People should just assume there is the potential for bacterial pathogens and act accordingly," said Bucknavage.