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Half of All Store-Bought Chicken is Contaminated

When it comes to the dangers of raw chicken, most people immediately think of Salmonella. And yes, raw chicken is definitely susceptible to Salmonella. But a new study reveals that E. coli is also surprisingly common.

According to an article in The New York Times, researchers bought and tested packaged raw chicken products from 10 major cities across the United States. They discovered the bacteria E. coli in 48 percent of the chicken, an indicator of fecal contamination.

“Most consumers do not realize that feces are in the chicken products they purchase,” said Dr. Neal D. Barnard, president of the group [Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine]. “Food labels discuss contamination as if it is simply the presence of bacteria, but people need to know that it means much more than that.”

While the researchers—and most consumers—are surprised by the high levels of contamination, other food experts are unimpressed by the study findings.

“What’s surprising to me is that they didn’t find more,” said Dr. Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “Poop gets into your food, and not just into meat — produce is grown in soil fertilized with manure, and there’s E. coli in that, too.”

Also unsurprising is the response by the National Chicken Council, the trade group representing chicken producers. They claim that the results were based on only a tiny fraction of the 42 million pounds of chicken in grocery stores. Also, the E. coli found in chicken isn’t the super-dangerous variety that is sometimes found in undercooked beef. Still, food-borne bacteria should never be underestimated as a potential source of illness.

This research will likely spur other studies to confirm or disprove these results, as well as additional investigation into where in the process the bacteria could be introduced–during slaughter, processing, packaging, or storage. No doubt, this will not be the final word.

But the best possible immediate effect will be to remind all of us to be careful when handling and cooking raw chicken.

“The main thing,” said [Dr. Catherine N. Cutter, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at Pennsylvania State University], “is that consumers properly handle a raw chicken and avoid cross contamination as much as possible and cook it thoroughly.”

How to Safely Handle Raw Chicken

According to the USDA, here are the government’s guidelines for preventing food-borne illness from raw chicken, meats, and seafood:

The key to preventing illness at home, in a restaurant, at a church picnic, or anywhere else is to prevent the bacteria from growing to high levels and to destroy the bacteria through cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature. Follow these guidelines for safe food preparation:

CLEAN: Wash Hands and Surfaces Often

  • Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets.
  • Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item.
  • Consider using paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.

SEPARATE: Don’t Cross-contaminate

  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Always wash cutting boards, dishes, countertops, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood.

COOK: Cook to Safe Temperatures
Use a clean food thermometer when measuring the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods to make sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature:

  • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Stuffed poultry is not recommended. Cook stuffing separately to 165 °F.
  • Egg dishes, casseroles to 160 °F.
  • Fish should reach 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating.
  • Reheat other leftovers thoroughly to at least 165 °F.

CHILL: Refrigerate Promptly

  • Keep food safe at home, refrigerate promptly and properly. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures are above 90 °F).
  • Freezers should register 0 °F or below and refrigerators 40 °F or below.
  • Thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Foods should not be thawed at room temperature. Foods thawed in the microwave or in cold water must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature immediately after thawing.
  • Marinate foods in the refrigerator.
  • Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.

Resources

To read the full story in The New York Times, click here: 48% of Chicken in Small Sample Has E. Coli

To learn more about food borne illness, watch our videos:

Foodborne illness

Filing a Foodborne Illness Lawsuit

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