Is Your Chicken Safe? NCC Responds to Consumer Reports

December 19, 2013

National Chicken Council responds to Consumer Reports article about the safety of chicken; Reminds consumers that 160 million servings of chicken are eaten safely by Americans every day

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day, and 99.99 percent of those servings are consumed safely.  Unfortunately, this particular statistic was left out of the “in depth” piece recently published by Consumer Reports.

U.S. chicken producers rely upon the best science, microbiology and technology to reduce food-borne pathogens, and spend tens of millions of dollars every year in the name of food-safety research which can be credited with the significant decrease in foodborne pathogens present in chicken over the last several years.

“The belief that affordable food means it is lower in quality or compromised in some way stands in stark contrast to the hard work and efforts of American agriculture, USDA and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmers and food producers who work tirelessly to produce a quality protein that is the envy of the world and enjoyed by millions of Americans,” said National Chicken Council President Mike Brown.

From 2001 to 2010—the latest 10-year period for which data are available—outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens decreased by more than 40 percent. In the past five years, Salmonella in chickens has decreased by 55 percent.

“Eliminating bacteria entirely is always the goal,” Brown added.  “But in reality, it’s simply not feasible.”

Any raw agricultural product, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria. Whether it’s labeled “organic,” “natural,” purchased in the grocery store or at your local farmers’ market, there is the potential that fresh food could make us sick, if improperly handled or cooked.

Which is why the National Chicken Council agrees with Consumer Reports on one point—we all play an important role in ensuring food safety for our families, from the farm to the table.

“No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing,” Brown added. “The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising/growing, handling and cooking it.  Right now, we’re at 99.9% but we’re going to keep working to reach 100.

“We take the safety of our chicken very seriously,” said Brown. “After all, our families are eating the same chicken as you and yours.”

For chicken safe handling and cooking tips, click here.

NCC Concerns with Consumer Reports Report on Chicken

  • E. coli, enterococcus and klebsiella pneumoniae are not considered food safety risks in chicken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Consumer Reports tested 316 samples, or four-thousands of one percent (0.0004%) of approximately 42 million pounds of fresh chicken products in grocery stores on any given day.
  • All bacteria, antibiotic resistant or not, is killed by proper cooking.
  • The presence of generic E. coli, which is everywhere in our environment, is not a guaranteed indicator for fecal contamination, as suggested.  Most E. coli strains are completely harmless and these findings do not differentiate between those strains and the ones that can cause foodborne illness, like E. coli O157:H7.
  • All E. coli strains are killed through proper cooking.  In addition, chicken processing plants strictly adhere to USDA’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy for visible fecal material as a food safety standard.
  • Health experts, veterinarians and FDA have all refuted the talking point used by Consumer Reports that “80 percent of all of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year are used in animal production.”  Pound for pound, humans and their pets use 10 times the amount of antibiotics than what is used in food animal production.  About 1/3 of the antibiotics used on farms aren’t used in human medicine at all.
  • Ten years after Denmark’s pork industry ceased using antibiotics for subtherapeutic purposes, the use of antibiotics prescribed by veterinarians in Denmark to treat sick animals has increased more than 100 percent.  The total antibiotic use in the pork industry was higher than before the ban as reported in 2010 by DANMAR, the Danish monitoring agency.
  • As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated, “it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antibiotics as “Superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.
  • The strains of Salmonella Heidelberg associated with the outbreak on the West Coast earlier this year were sensitive to the most commonly recommended and prescribed antibiotics used to treat infections with Salmonella.  The health care providers for the people who were ill had the most common antibiotics used to treat foodborne illnesses available to them and they remain effective.

NCC Response to Consumer Reports Recommendations “To make chicken safer”

  • FDA has already moved forward with implementing its plan to phase out over a three year period the growth promoting use of medically important antibiotics in food producing animals.
  • Passing a law or regulation to fight bacteria will not magically make it go away.  Salmonella are microscopic living organisms found worldwide in cold- and warm-blooded animals and occur naturally in birds’ intestines. What will make Salmonella disappear is science, research and breaking the chain of Salmonella at every stage of production from the breeder farm to the processing plant.  Coupled with proper handling and cooking to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, chicken is safe to eat 100 percent of the time.
  • Through mandatory reporting by establishments of adulterated or misbranded product, CDC monitoring of illness outbreaks, and the agency’s own routine in-plant and in-commerce surveillance, FSIS is readily able to identify and respond to potential food-safety situations.
  • In a report specifically about the safety of chicken, it is ironic that Consumer Reports chose to come out in opposition to a plan USDA says will prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses every year.
  • We expect a new FSIS performance standard for chicken parts sometime in 2014.  NCC is taking this very seriously and we are working collectively as an industry to determine more opportunities in second processing that will further decrease Salmonella on chicken parts.

Keeping Salmonella off of Chicken

Proper handling and cooking in the kitchen is the last step in keeping Salmonella off of chicken, not the first.

It all starts even before the egg.  Healthy breeder flocks lead to healthy chicks – measures are taken to prevent diseases from passing from hen to chick and to ensure that natural antibodies are passed on which help keep the birds healthy.

At the hatchery, strict sanitation measures and appropriate vaccinations ensure the chicks are off to a healthy start.  At the feed mill, the finished feed of corn and soybean meal is heat treated, which kills any bacteria that may be present.  On the farm, farmers adhere to strict biosecurity measures and the chickens are routinely monitored by a veterinarian to keep them healthy.

At processing plants, the U.S. federal meat and poultry inspection system complements efforts by chicken processors to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat and poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.

Chicken processing facilities use a variety of intervention strategies at their critical control points that might include: the use of food-grade rinses that kill or reduce the growth of potential foodborne pathogens; organic sprays to cleanse the chickens and inhibit bacteria; and metal detectors to make sure that no foreign object makes its way into a product.

Microbiological tests for pathogens are then conducted by companies and federal laboratories to help ensure that food safety systems are working properly. The numbers tell us we’re making tremendous progress:

  • According the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Quarterly Progress Report released on October 26, 2013, 2.6 percent of young chicken carcasses tested positive for Salmonella  – a fraction of the FSIS performance standard of 7.5 percent.
  • The prevalence of Salmonella on raw young chicken carcasses is down 26 percent over the first quarter of 2013 and represents a decrease of 55 percent during the past five years.
  • Over the last five years, the prevalence of Salmonella on ground chicken has been reduced by 50 percent.
  • From 2001 to 2010, the latest 10-year period for which data are available, outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens decreased by more than 40 percent.

Antibiotic Use in Raising Chickens and Antibiotic Resistance

Administering antibiotics isn’t the only way to keep chickens healthy – it is one tool in the toolbox in raising healthy birds and producing a wholesome food supply.

And contrary to popular belief, antibiotics are not always used in chicken production; rather, they are administered only when needed to prevent and treat disease. On those occasions, they are used judiciously to treat and prevent disease under the care of a veterinarian.

For those antibiotics that are FDA-approved for use in raising chickens, the majority of them are not used in human medicine and therefore do not represent any threat of creating resistance in humans.  There are several published, peer-reviewed risk assessments showing any threat to human health from antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is negligible, if it exists at all.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that most acute problem with antimicrobial resistance is with hospitals, and the most resistant organisms in hospitals are emerging in those settings, because of poor antimicrobial stewardship among humans.

Still, chicken producers are phasing out subtherapeutic or “growth uses” of antibiotics important to treating humans.  NCC will continue to work with FDA to phase out by 2016 the growth-promoting use of medically important antibiotics in raising chickens.

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