You would think that after years of alarms about food safety—outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup—a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in the latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. You would think that after years of alarms about food safety—outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup—a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in our latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. That's a modest improvement since January 2007, when we found that eight of 10 broilers harbored those pathogens. But the numbers are still far too high, especially for campylobacter. Though the government has been talking about regulating it for years, it has yet to do so.
The message is clear: Consumers still can't let down their guard. They must cook chicken to at least 165º F and prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food.
Each year, salmonella and campylobacter from chicken and other food sources infect 3.4 million Americans, send 25,500 to hospitals, and kill about 500, according to estimates by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the problem might be even more widespread: Many people who get sick don't seek medical care, and many of those who do aren't screened for foodborne infections, says Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, a national nonprofit food-safety organization. What's more, the CDC reports that in about 20 percent of salmonella cases and 55 percent of campylobacter cases, the bugs have proved resistant to at least one antibiotic. For that reason, victims who are sick enough to need antibiotics might have to try two or more before finding one that helps.
Consumer Reports has been measuring contamination in store-bought chickens since 1998. For our latest analysis, we had an outside lab test 382 chickens bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states. We tested three top brands—Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson—as well as 30 nonorganic store brands, nine organic store brands, and nine organic name brands. Five of the organic brands were labeled “air-chilled” (a slaughterhouse process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water).
Among our findings:
Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in 9 percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens. That's double the percentage of clean birds we found in our 2007 report but far less than the 51 percent in our 2003 report.
Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens. Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both, but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.
Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, showing that it's possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacterium riding along. But as our tests showed, banishing one bug doesn't mean banishing both: 57 percent of those birds harbored campylobacter.
The cleanest name-brand chickens were Perdue's: 56 percent were free of both pathogens. This is the first time since we began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.
Most contaminated were Tyson and Foster Farms chickens. More than 80 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.
Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms we analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.