How safe is that chicken?

You would think that after years of alarms about food safety — outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup — a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in Consumer Reports’ latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of food-borne disease.
That’s a modest improvement since January 2007, when CR found that eight of 10 broilers harbored those pathogens. But the numbers are still far too high, especially for campylobacter. Though the government has been talking about regulating it for years, it has yet to do so.
The message is clear: Consumers still can’t let down their guard. They must cook chicken to at least 165 degrees F and prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food.
For its latest analysis, CR had an outside lab test 382 chickens bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet- and natural-food stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states. Among the findings:
— Campylobacter was in 62 percent of the chickens, salmonella was in 14 percent, and both bacteria were in 9 percent. Only 34 percent of the birds were clear of both pathogens. That’s double the percentage of clean birds CR found in its 2007 report but far less than the 51 percent in the 2003 report.
— Among the cleanest overall were organic “air-chilled” broilers (a process in which carcasses are refrigerated and may be misted, rather than dunked in cold chlorinated water). About 60 percent were free of the two pathogens.
— Perdue was found to be the cleanest of the brand-name chicken: 56 percent were free of both pathogens. This is the first time since CR began testing chicken that one major brand has fared significantly better than others across the board.
— Tyson and Foster Farms chickens were found to be the most contaminated; less than 20 percent were free of either pathogens.
— Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, but only 43 percent of those birds were also free of campylobacter.
Although Perdue chickens were cleaner than other big brands in the tests, and most “air-chilled” organic birds were especially clean, CR tests are a snapshot in time and no type has been consistently low enough in pathogens to recommend over all others. Buying cleaner chicken may improve consumers’ odds if they fail to prepare chicken carefully.
Each year, salmonella and campylobacter from chicken and other food sources infect at least 3.4 million Americans, send 25,500 to hospitals, and kill about 500, according to estimates by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While both salmonella and campylobacter are known to cause intestinal distress, campylobacter can lead to meningitis, arthritis, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a severe neurological condition.
Until chicken becomes cleaner, consumers’ best line of defense involves following these procedures in stores and kitchens:
— Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
— Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest. Buy chicken last before heading to the checkout line.
— If you’ll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40 degrees F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
— Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
— Cook chicken to at least 165 degrees F. Even if it’s no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer.
— Don’t return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
— Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.

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