USDA should set stricter limits for salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts and classify strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics as "adulterants," a public policy group recommended Thursday.
The recommendations are based on a survey prepared by the group, Consumers Union, which found 97% of supermarket chicken contains bacteria that "could make consumers sick" and about half contains at least one bacterium resistant to three or more antibiotics.
The "could make consumers sick" caveat is important, according to the National Chicken Council, which released a statement reminding consumers that, if cooked properly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, chicken is safe to eat.
"Any raw agricultural product, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria," an NCC statement said.
"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," NCC President Mike Brown noted.
Consumers Union, a public policy arm of Consumer Reports, said the report studied contamination rates for six different bacteria in 316 raw chicken breasts. It also evaluated every bacterium for antibiotic resistance, finding that about half the chicken samples harbored at least one multidrug-resistant bacteria.
The findings indicate that consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are "very likely" to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant, says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center executive director.
That's why the group is pushing Congress, the FDA and USDA to make a few changes, including:
-Congress should give the USDA authority to recall meat and poultry products
-FDA should prohibit all antibiotic use in food animals except for the treatment of sick ones (pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, the group says)
-USDA should classify strains of salmonella bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and known to have caused disease as "adulterants" so inspectors look for those strains routinely
-USDA should set levels for allowable salmonella and campylobacter in chicken parts, and publish a list of meat products like chicken parts for which it has no performance standards and indicate a timetable for establishing them
-Drop the proposed rule to increase maximum line speeds and reduce the number of USDA inspectors at slaughter plants
-Don't allow antibiotics to be used in chicken eggs up until the first day of life in organic chicken broilers in the National Organic Program
- USDA should ban the use of the "natural" claim and require claims on meat to be certified and inspected
The report is part of a larger feature to be released in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports, "The High Cost of Cheap Chicken."
The group previously released a similar study critical of pork safety in November, 2012.
View NCC's full response to the report here.