There has been a lot of chatter about chicken lately—and for good reason. How safe it is for consumption has recently been questioned, no doubt due to two recent outbreaks of food poisoning linked with chicken products produced at Foster Farms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreaks have left 416 people from 23 states and Puerto Rico ill. Although no deaths have been reported, 39% of those who fell ill have been hospitalized.
What makes these outbreaks of foodborne illness especially troubling is the fact that they derived from seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg—bacterial strains resistant to several antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat such illnesses.
A new Consumer Reports analysis of 316 raw chicken breasts obtained from U.S. retailers last July reveals that while almost all the samples contained potentially harmful bacteria, about half carried bacteria that is resistant to three or more antibiotics. Another 11% of the samples harbored two types of bacteria resistant to multiple drugs.
Fortunately, just this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) released a Salmonella Action Plan. The plan is designed to make meat and poultry products safer and includes modernizing the poultry slaughter inspection system and enhancing salmonella sampling and testing programs.
But in light of the recent outbreaks—and the FSIS response to them—a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts questions the government's ability to adequately regulate Salmonella and protect public health. According to the report, "The two recent outbreaks of Salmonella Heidelberg bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of the FSIS approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in poultry products." It also states, "The agency's response to the evidence collected by the states, the CDC, and its own investigation efforts was inadequate to protect public health." The report concludes with seven recommendations to the FSIS to improve the control of Salmonella in poultry and to strengthen its response to outbreaks caused by bacteria.
Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced new voluntary guidelines to phase down the non-medical use of antibiotics (such as to enhance animal growth) in livestock over three years. This came on the heels of a joint statement on antibiotics released by 25 national health organizations and the CDC that, among other things, called for "limiting the use of medically important human antibiotics in food animals" and "supporting the use of such antibiotics in animals only for those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health." The FDA also urged the FSIS to set levels for how much bacteria poultry can have and to give its inspectors power to prevent sale of poultry meat that contains Salmonella bacteria that's resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Chicken, the most popular meat in the U.S., is a source of high-quality protein and other vital nutrients such as selenium, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus. If you and your children enjoy it and don't want to give it up, you don't have to! But it's wise to consider following steps when purchasing, handling and cooking it to reduce the likelihood of getting sick from it:
Buyer be aware. Organic poultry a good bet. That's because it comes from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. When buying poultry products, look for the USDA organic seal— that indicates the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content. According to notinmyfood.org, labels that say "no antibiotics administered" and similar labels—especially if they're accompanied by a "USDA process Verified" shield are also a good bet. And according to an article in the New York Times, there are even some so-called healthier chicken options to choose from. One example is Bell & Evans chicken that's infused with oregano oil and cinnamon instead of antibiotics.
Handle with care. To minimize your risk of getting sick from poultry, assume every piece you handle is contaminated. I say this not to reinforce food-fear, but to remind you to practice safe food-handling practices. Keep raw chicken separated from other foods, and don't use cutting boards or utensils used to handle raw chicken with other foods. Cook chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and be sure to wash the thermometer in warm soapy water in-between temperature readings. For more information about handling and cooking chicken, check out the USDA FSIS's Chicken from Farm to Table.
Mix it up. Any food can be a source of, or become contaminated with, potentially harmful bacteria or viruses. Varying what you eat and choosing different options from different food groups including grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy foods and lean protein foods is a wise move—not only because it helps you get an array of nutrients, but because it could limit exposure to any potentially harmful substances found in individual foods.
For more general home food safety tips, check out the Holiday Home Food Safety and Storage by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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Image of chicken fillet and knife on kitchen board via shutterstock.com.