That chicken dinner? It might make you sick
Source of Article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28677495/
Pathogens and poison could be lurking in your favorite lean meat
updated 6:37 a.m. PT, Wed., Feb. 11, 2009
Jenelle Dorner, 32, of
story is an extreme one, but poultry can make you sick as easily today as it
did to Dorner when she bit into her destructive
dinner. In fact, there is a 50 percent chance that the bird you bring home
from the grocery store will contain Campylobacter (known as campy for short),
the bacteria that was lurking in Dorner’s
undercooked entrée. The pathogen, found in a chicken’s intestinal tract,
causes no harm to the animals, but it can make humans very ill, sometimes
fatally, if high cooking temperatures don’t kill it. Seeing as how the
average American puts away more than 42 pounds of poultry per year (equal to
222 chicken breasts), your chances of getting sick are considerable. An
estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness
occur each year in the
of campy are so common that many of us have probably already had it at least
once,” says Robert Tauxe, M.D., deputy director of
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic
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ordeal began in 1995, when she was a sophomore at the
Campy isn’t the only bug infecting chickens
and the women who eat them. Between 2000 and 2005, rates of salmonella,
another dangerous chicken-borne pathogen, spiked 80 percent in broiler birds.
Although rates have declined slightly since then, the percentage of food
poisonings from salmonella has remained steady over the past decade. And in
addition to gut-ravaging bacteria, there could be another harmful hitchhiker
on your roaster: Conventionally raised birds may also contain arsenic, a
known carcinogen. “About 70 percent of broiler chickens in the
average person ingests an estimated 8.1 micrograms of arsenic a day from
chicken, according to a study from the USDA. And when you add that to the
small amounts of arsenic you can be exposed to from other sources, such as
drinking water, dust and arsenic-treated wood, a steady diet of chicken could
quickly become risky. “Chronic exposure [10 to 40 micrograms a day, research
suggests] is associated with an increased risk for skin, bladder and
respiratory cancer,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal,
food-safety director at the CSPI. Richard Lobb, a
spokesman for the National Chicken Council in
Along with arsenic, farmers are also allowed to lace their birds’ feed with antibiotics to control bacteria in crowded quarters. It sounds great in theory, but if you catch a strain of bacteria that was exposed to antibiotics in the chicken’s gut, and that strain “learned” to outsmart the antibiotics, then it will be harder for you to recover. “Antibiotic-resistant strains can last longer in your body and are more likely to lead to hospitalization,” Dr. Tauxe says. What’s more, these superbugs are on the rise, so even though the hens might be healthy, they may be making you sicker. (Lobb reinforced that “food safety is a top concern of the poultry industry” and that it has worked to adopt judicious use of antibiotics in its farming practices.)
Who’s guarding the henhouse?
The gold standard for detecting bacteria in chicken is microbial testing. The USDA requires that plants submit to a test for salmonella about once a year. (There is currently no regulatory test for campy.) And in recent months, the USDA has begun reallocating resources to test poorly performing plants more often and plants with better records less often. These cleaner plants undergo testing at least once every two years. During the testing period, the USDA pulls one sample from the plant per day for 51 days. “If more than 12 of those 51 samples test positive for salmonella, it’s deemed a performance-standard failure,” Dr. Petersen says. Put it another way: A plant can pass even if just under 20 percent of its poultry is riddled with potentially harmful pathogens. And that plant’s birds can end up in your grocery store.
the event that a plant fails to meet even this low standard, the USDA doesn’t
immediately suspend it. Instead, the agency performs a follow-up test “as
soon as possible” and sends an officer to scrutinize the plant’s procedures.
Once the officer determines the problem, he asks the plant to address it. If
the plant refuses to comply, the USDA sends it a letter giving it three days
to clean up its act. If that doesn’t work, the plant is suspended while it
makes corrections. “Of the 135 letters we sent out in 2007, about 30 plants
were suspended,” Dr. Petersen says. Public health experts are critical.
“There are roughly 6,000 processing plants in the
To reduce your odds of purchasing meat from plants that have failed USDA inspection, you have to jump through numerous hoops. The USDA has begun posting the names and identifying digits, or P numbers, of offending plants on its Web site — a step that has reduced contamination rates, Tucker-Foreman says. To avoid buying a bird from a poorly performing plant, you can check the site monthly to print out the list, then compare it with the packages in your store or toss any chicken you already bought with matching numbers. But not all packages carry P numbers, and because plants can pump out bacteria-ridden chicken and still pass inspection, there is still no guarantee that your bird is bacteria-free.
claims it has broad authority to enforce regulations and take action against
rogue plants if necessary; but, in truth, it is limited in its ability to
permanently shut down repeat offenders. In 1999, the USDA tried to close a
Supreme Beef meat plant in
Debugging the birds
The unlikely McRole model for safer chicken-processing standards: fast food chains. “Com-panies like McDonald’s and Burger King don’t count on USDA regulations to keep their product safe,” Tucker-Foreman says. Because of the bad rap the fast food industry acquired during the Jack in the Box fatal E. coli outbreak in 1993, major fast food companies now go to extraordinary lengths to safeguard their products.
do microbiological testing hourly, every day,” says Edward Sabatini, vice
president of quality assurance, food safety and regulatory compliance at
Burger King Corporation in
addition to putting controls in place on the farm, it’s also up to the
government to develop stricter standards for plant performance. “When the 20
percent salmonella performance standard was set in 1996, the idea was we
would gradually ratchet it down to around 5 percent or so,” says Michael
Taylor, research professor at George Washington University School of Public
Health and Health Services in
Some progress has been made on the antibiotic-resistant front. The FDA removed one group of commonly used antibiotics called fluoroquinolones from use in poultry in 2005. “But tetracycline and sulfa drugs are still added to feed,” IATP’s Dr. Wallinga says. The issue is of such urgency that more than 350 groups, including the American Medical Association, have endorsed a bill — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act — that would phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics in animals. Log on to KeepAntibioticsWorking.org and click the Act Now button to send an automatic form letter in support of the bill to your congressional representatives.
If the state of chicken has ruffled your feathers and made you despair of a diet of tofu and lentils, take heart: There are things you can do to enjoy chicken without worry. Cook your chicken thoroughly (to kill off bacteria) and follow the steps outlined in “ Have a safer dinner tonight.” You can also get on your squawk box and ask your congressperson to support the Food Safety Authority Modernization Act, which would enact measures to improve testing and inspection. Because, in the end, your tax dollars — which fund the USDA — should make the food you eat safer. “Why should we tolerate spending money on a program that defrauds the public with an archaic system and a seal that says our government has inspected this meat and it’s OK?” Tucker-Foreman asks. When it comes to tonight’s dinner, you’ll have to take your health into your own hands. The greatest weapon against food poisoning is your own roasting pan.
Additional reporting by Lee Cabot Walker.
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