That chicken might not be as clean as you'd hope

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture did studies in slaughter establishments in the U.S. to determine the amount of contamination on chicken carcasses by fecal bacteria.

Three different bacteria — campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli — can be found on or in many of the chicken carcasses. During these studies it was determined that it was only useful to check for E. coli.

Researchers drew samples every three months for the year 2005 from 20 of the 127 largest USDA-inspected operations.

It was found that 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for E. coli just prior to being packaged for the market. These findings were published in the June 2009 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

In part because of those findings, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine decided to do its own study. The results of this study were published in the Summer 2012 issue of Good Medicine, which is the journal of PCRM.

Researchers looked at fecal contamination of chicken products in 10 large cities around the U.S. The chicken samples were from 25 popular brands.

In each of the 10 cities, samples were taken from two different grocery store chains representing 16 companies. Among these were stores such as Albertsons, Safeway, Kroger, and Piggly Wiggly.

The findings were that 48 percent of the samples had fecal contamination. A Kroger’s store in Dallas had 100 percent and an Albertsons in San Diego had 17 percent.

The USDA only requires chicken producers to sample one in every 22,000 carcasses. Some slaughter lines process as many as 140 birds per minute meaning inspectors have very little time to examine each carcass for visible feces.

According to the PCRM journal when chicken producers are preparing chickens for market they are run through a cold water bath which in effect can produce what has been called “fecal soup,” thus spreading fecal material to all the birds.

Carol T. Foreman, a former undersecretary of the agriculture department said chicken producers use the water bath because chickens readily absorb water, thus gaining a little weight. Because chickens are sold by the pound it can make a significant financial difference over a period of time.

So how does person tell when they go the meat market whether the chicken has been or is contaminated? Unfortunately they cannot. The best thing they can do is be sure the chicken is cooked well and that utensils and cutting boards are cleaned well.

However, the president of PCRM, Dr. Neal Barnard, expresses his concern in this inelegant way:

“People who still eat chicken despite the fat, cholesterol and salmonella might be put off by the realization that they are eating cooked dung in about half of the chicken products they buy.”

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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