Consumer Reports finds potentially harmful bacteria on almost all chicken breasts tested

Is your chicken safe to eat?

That’s the question posed on the cover of Consumer Reports magazine’s February issue.

Consumer Reports, the world’s largest independent product-testing organization, tested 316 raw chicken breasts purchased at retail nationwide. It found bacteria that could make consumers sick on 97 percent of the chicken breasts.

The full report, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken,” is available online at

“Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.

“When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find.”

Consumer Reports’ study comes at a time when 48 million people are falling sick and 3,000 dying in the United States each year from eating tainted food, with more deaths being attributed to poultry than any other commodity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the findings are stomach-churning, should we be worried?

The truth is: If chicken is properly handled and cooked, there’s little chance of becoming ill from contamination — but people have to actually follow the advice.

“Don’t eat undercooked chicken. The recommendation is 165 degrees, but you can cook it beyond 165 if you choose to,” said Maisielin “Maisie” Ross, a Palm Beach County/University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service agent.

Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature. Make sure it is working properly. Meat thermometers have a notch indicating how far the thermometer should be inserted. Make sure the notch is completely in the meat and also that the thermometer’s tip is not touching the bones, Ross said.

Ross advises consumers to wash their hands in hot, soapy water for 20 seconds, which is as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, before handling foods.

Avoid cross contamination when preparing chicken. This means using a separate cutting board, and washing it in hot, soapy water.

When shopping, place poultry in plastic bags at the bottom of the cart, Ross said.

After cooking, don’t leave food out on the counter for more than two hours. After that, it should be refrigerated.

The National Chicken Council had a lengthy response to the Consumer Reports’ findings.

“Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, and 99.99 percent of those servings are consumed safely. Unfortunately, this particular statistic was left out of the ‘in depth’ piece recently published by Consumer Reports,” the council said.

The council’s response can be read in full at

Since 1998, Consumer Reports’ says, its tests of chicken have shown salmonella rates have not changed much, ranging between 11 and 16 percent.

“We know especially for salmonella, other countries have reduced their rates. In fact, systemic solutions were implemented throughout the European Union. Government data show that in 2010, 22 countries met the European target for less than or equal to 1 percent contamination of two important types of salmonella in their broiler flocks,’ Rangan said.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is asking the U.S Department of Agriculture, Congress, and the Food and Drug Administration to take the following action:

— Congress should give the USDA authority to mandate a recall of meat and poultry products, especially when product from a plant matches that of a human outbreak strain. Currently, it cannot mandate any recall.

— The FDA should prohibit antibiotic use in food animals except for the treatment of sick ones.

— The USDA should classify strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and known to have caused disease as “adulterants,” so that inspectors look for those strains routinely and, when found, the products cannot be sold.

— The USDA should move quickly to set strict levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts.

— The USDA’s proposed rule to reduce the number of USDA inspectors at slaughter plants should be dropped.

— The National Organic Program should eliminate the loophole allowing antibiotics to be used in the chicken eggs up until the first day of life in organic chicken broilers.

— USDA should ban the use of the “natural” claim, which is not a meaningful label, and require claims on meat to be certified and inspected.

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