While critics from the US Agriculture Department (USDA) have labelled the report "junkscience" for not doing a wide enough sampling, the publishing of the survey by an influentialconsumer organisation is a direct attack on the food safety practices at leading poultry processors.
As well, the USDA's own figures show that samples in broilers, ground chicken and ground turkeytesting positive for salmonella at US slaughter and processing plants have surged since 2002,indicating that companies might soon be pushed to do more to bring down the levels.
Broilers had the highest rates of salmonella, with 16.3 per cent of samples testing positive in2005, up from 11.5 per cent in 2002, USDA figures released earlier this year showed. The highestlevel was reached in 1998, when salmonella was found in 20 per cent of the broilers sampled.
Meanwhile the Consumer Reports survey tested 525 chickens -- including samples from Perdue,Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson Foods.
Campylobacter was present in 81 per cent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 per cent and both bacteria in 13per cent. Only 17 per cent had neither pathogen.
That's the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of the organisation's tests since 1998, and far less than the 51per cent of clean birds it found in a 2003 survey, the organisation stated.
"Leading chicken producers have stabilized the incidence of salmonella, but spiral-shaped campylobacter has wriggled onto more chickens thanever," Consumer Reports stated. "And although the US Department of Agriculture tests chickens for salmonella against a federal standard, it has not set a standard for campylobacter."
Overall, chickens labeled as organic or raised without antibiotics and costing $3 to $5 per pound were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers that cost more like $1 perpound, the study found.
Moreover, most of the bacteria we tested from all types of contaminated chicken showed resistance to one or moreantibiotics, including some fed to chickens to speed their growth and those prescribed to humans to treat infections. Among all brands, 84 per cent of the salmonella and 67 per cent of the campylobacter organisms showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.
"The findings suggest that some people who are sickened by chicken might need to try several antibiotics before finding one thatworks," the organisation concluded.
No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.
There was an exception to the poor showing of most premium chickens. As in its previous tests, Ranger--a no-antibiotics brand sold in the Northwest--was extremely clean. Of the 10 samplesthe organisation analyzed, none had salmonella, while two had campylobacter.
To keep contamination in check, processors follow procedures collectively known as Hazard Analysis and Critical ControlPoint (HACCP) analysis as a means of reducing the risks. HACCP requires companies to spell out where contamination could be controlled during processing, then build in procedures--such as scalding carcasses--to prevent it.s
"But our tests show the current practices aren't enough," ConsumerReports stated.
The report cited the example of Bell & Evans, which spent $30 million to modernize its processing plant in2005. The sum included $9 million for a high-tech air-chill system designed in part to reduce cross-contamination.
The system whisks carcasses on two miles of track through chambers in which they're misted and chilled with air, then submerged in an antimicrobial dip. Tom Stone, the company's marketing director, says the measures helped reduce the rate of salmonella to less than3 per cent in recent in-house tests of chickens done before packaging.
But in Consumer Reports tests of 28 store-bought chickens, five of the Bell & Evans samples had salmonella and 19 had campylobacter, the organisation stated.
Other government studies back up the growth trend, while reporting significantly lower levels of the pathogens compared to the Consumer Reports survey.
In response to the Consumer Reports claims, the National Chicken Council on Monday said the findings contain "nothing new and should not be cause for alarm to anyone." The association said some of the statements "are not in line with known facts", claiming that the "prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on raw chicken is apparently greatly exaggerated."
USDA testing shows that Salmonella is found in about 12 per cent of broiler chickens in a sample of 3,242 nationwide in the third quarter of 2006.
The industry association also cited a large-scale study by Dr. Norman Stern, an expert with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, which showed that 26 per cent of the chickens sampled had detectable level of Campylobacter.
Stern's study took place over 13 months, in 13 poultry complexes, and included 4,200 samples. This study was published in the Journal of Food Protection earlier this year.
"As for the suggestion that bacteria that may be found on raw chicken are becoming more resistant to antibiotics, the fact is that Campylobacter is notoriously resistant to some antibiotics regardless of whether they are used in chicken or not," the associtation stated. "We are not aware of any actual human cases in which antibiotics have failed to work because of any usage in live chickens. The use of antibiotics in live chickens has declined sharply in recent years."
Another criticism of the Consumer Reports study came this week, with Reuters news service quoting a spokesman with the USDA as saying the Consumer Reports study was riddledwith flaws -- such as a small sample size and uncertainty over the report's methodology. Steven Cohen, spokesman for the agency, said the report did not go back to all the stores used in the 2003 report.
"There is virtually nothing or any conclusion that anyone could draw from 500samples," Reuters quotes Cohen as stating. "They're passing along junk science andcalling it an investigation."
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this month published USDA figures showing that the presence of Salmonella enterica serotype Enteritidis in broiler chicken carcass rinses collected from 2000 through 2005 increased four-fold over the period. The proportion of establishments with Salmonella Enteritidis-positive rinses increased nearlythree fold during the same period.
"We present US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Salmonella testing program data collected from 2000 to 2005 that suggest a need for interventions to prevent the emergence of this Salmonella serotype in broiler chickens in the United States," the CDC stated in its study.
Campylobacter and salmonella from all food sources sicken about 3.4 million Americans and killabout 700 annually, according to the latest estimates from the CDC.
The CDC said that in 2004, poultry was involved in 24 percent of infection outbreaks in which a single product was identified, up from 20 percent in 1998.In 2004, about 53 percent of campylobacter samples and 18 percent of salmonella samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic.
In July 2006, Food & Water Watch, an environmental health organization, published the names of 106 chicken processing plants that failed federal salmonella standards in at least one test period between 1998 and 2005.
In August 2006, the USDA reported that the rate of positive salmonella tests in broilers had jumped to 16.3 per cent in 2005, up from 11.5 per cent in 2002.