Plus: Tips on How to Avoid Food-Poisoning from Eating Chicken
You may have heard on the news recently that chicken has been found to be the dirtiest meat of all in the United States (and elsewhere), as it is usually contaminated with disease-causing bacteria that are often resistant to antibiotics. This latest study was conducted by Consumer Reports; it was published online in January and is appearing in the February, 2014 issue of the magazine.
Researchers tested 316 raw chicken breasts bought at stores throughout the U.S. Potentially harmful bacteria were found in 97 percent — nearly all — of the samples! Further, about half the samples contained at least one type of bacterium found to be resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics. What that latter point means is that if a person were to become infected with that bacterium, it would be difficult or impossible to find an antibiotic to cure them.
Food-poisoning can indeed be very serious. Many of us have had it; “milder” symptoms can include stomach ache, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and chills. But it can also escalate to more serious complications. Depending on the pathogen, these can include blood stream infections, meningitis, organ failure, nerve damage, paralysis, stillbirth and death. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at greater risk for food-poisoning than other groups.
The bacteria types found in the chicken breasts tested were mostly from fecal contamination; bacteria were more resistant to antibiotics that are used to prevent poultry diseases than to other types of antibiotics.
When you buy chicken at the grocery store, chances are that chicken will be contaminated, and there is also a good chance that you will get a bacterium that’s resistant to multiple antibiotics (that are used to treat the diseases caused by that same bacterium).
Consumer Reports has been testing U.S. chicken for salmonella bacteria since 1998; salmonella contamination rates haven’t changed much since then, ranging from 11 to 16 percent of samples collected. But this study marks the first year that researchers tested for six different types of bacteria. Campylobacter, found in 43 percent of the chicken breasts tested, causes the most economic damage in the U.S., making more than 600,000 people sick annually, and costing the U.S. $1.3 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.
Government figures estimate that one in six Americans gets food-poisoning every year. Though estimates vary, 3,000 to 5,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poultry contamination is the leading cause of these deaths.
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself:
- Avoid cross-contamination by washing your hands thoroughly with soap after handling chicken meat (or any meat), even if it is frozen
- Thoroughly clean area where you cut or seasoned your raw chicken; plenty of soap and water are good, but as an added measure, use a solution of water and bleach, or water and vinegar
- If you run the faucet over your chicken as you thaw it in your sink, remember to always disinfect sink and surrounding area afterwards (with soap, water/bleach or water/vinegar solution), to remove bacteria that water splashes may have deposited on surfaces
- Or: thaw your chicken in the refrigerator, instead of outside
- Cook all meats thoroughly, but especially chicken and poultry. If you prick chicken to the bone and the juices that come out are a little pink, that means the chicken is not yet fully cooked
- Refrigerate all uneaten cooked meats after two hours
- If you cook a whole chicken and you need to freeze unused portions, freeze them in smaller containers, so that you can thaw containers individually, instead of thawing and refreezing all that’s left
- Look for local farmers to supply your meats whenever possible; these meats are likely to be fresher, as they will have traveled a shorter distance to get to you
- Buy raw meats (and dairy) last when you shop for groceries, so they’ll be fresher when you get home
Another word of advice is to get into the habit of cooking your own meats at home; that way, you control everything. A report by the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, which analyzed food-poisoning outbreaks between 1998 and 2008, found that more than 70 percent of food-poisoning cases caused by salmonella, and 80 percent of cases caused by norovirus, involved foods that had been prepared in professional kitchens. Handling of meats, even once they are cooked, is a key factor in causing or preventing food contamination.
By Lisa Pecos