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The High Cost of Cheap Chicken

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Dangerous bacteria

When you shop at your favorite grocery store, you probably assume that the food on display is safe to take home. But in the poultry aisle, that simple assumption could make you very sick. Consumer Reports' recent analysis of more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased at stores across the U.S. found potentially harmful bacteria lurking in almost all of the chicken, including organic brands. In fact, we were conducting our research when news of the national salmonella outbreak linked to three Foster Farms chicken plants became public. In that case 389 people were infected, and 40 percent of them were hospitalized, double the usual percentage in most outbreaks linked to salmonella. (Read about sustainable alternatives when it comes to raising chickens and watch our video on the use of antibiotics in animals.)

What's going on with the nation's most popular meat? (Americans buy an estimated 83 pounds per capita annually.) Though 48 million people fall sick every year from eating food tainted with salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and other contaminants, "more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity," according to an analysis of outbreaks from 1998 through 2008 by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here's what you should know before buying your next package of chicken.

It's unrealistic to expect that the uncooked chicken you buy won't contain any potentially harmful bacteria. That's one reason we advise you to prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food and to cook it to at least 165˚ F. (Check our reviews of meat thermometers.) Yet some bacteria are more worrisome than others-and our latest tests produced troubling findings. More than half of the samples contained fecal contaminants. And about half of them harbored at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Public-health officials say they think that the resistance to antibiotics in general is such a major concern that in September the CDC released a landmark report outlining the dire threat it poses to our health. Antibiotic-­resistant infections are linked to at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. And if antibiotic-­resistant bacteria continue their scary spread, they could lead to deadly infections after routine surgery or even a seemingly innocuous cut because the drugs that doctors prescribe will have lost their effectiveness. 

Our tests showed that those resistant bacteria are commonly found in chicken at your local grocery store. We collected samples in July 2013, months before the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak drew a public-health alert from the Department of Agriculture (USDA). It turned out that we had purchased a package of the tainted chicken and that our tests found a strain of salmonella (known as Heidelberg) that matched one of those linked to the outbreak.      


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