Junkfood Science: Dirty chicken or foul fears?

December 13, 2006

Dirty chicken or foul fears?

It seems we can’t turn on the news without hearing some scary story about the deadliness of our food. Regrettably, most of us don’t realize that the level of media-reported crisis is more reflective of politics than the safety of our food supply. Special interest consumer groups, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), are working for legislation to create a new agency for food-safety, with increased authority to enforce new regulations and penalties. It’s part of their global initiatives begun two years ago to organize consumer groups around the world to regulate multi-national food companies.

But when it comes to the safety of the foods we select for ourselves and our families, most of us don’t want politics, we just want the facts.

According to the latest headlines “Raw chicken is dirtier than ever.” Consumer Reports, a publication of the Consumers Union, just published a report asserting that poultry “are a lot dirtier than in the past, harboring large amounts of campylobacter or salmonella bacteria that can make people sick.” In a test of 525 chickens purchased around the country, they said 83% were contaminated, up from 49% in 2003. They added that organic chickens, produced without antibiotics, were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-raised chicken that cost up to five times less.

“We think it’s really startling,” said Jane Halloran, a policy director for Consumers Union (one of the organizations partnering with CSPI in its global food safety initiatives). “It’s a very significant deterioration in food safety.”

But is it? And should we be afraid?

Every time we hear something that sounds scary, it’s our clue that what we’re hearing is likely to be marketing, appealing to our emotions, rather than good science or a balanced perspective.

Nature is not sterile. Even the most pristine picturesque farms, crystal clear streams and wholesome foods are not sterile. There are germs everywhere and on everything we touch. But the mere presence of germs doesn’t mean we’re going to get sick, and especially not if we take prudent care to wash our hands and handle foods safely [See FightBac!]

Remember how our Grandmothers cooked things to death? It was partly to make farm-fresh foods safer to eat. Before the mid-1900s, eating raw foods wasn’t common and even people who lived on farms ate very little fresh produce, said Dr. Robert Buchanan, senior science advisor to the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the Food & Drug Administration.

Every cook knows that fresh poultry can carry bacteria and needs to be handled and cooked properly. While media gives the impression that poultry is more dangerous than ever, that’s not necessarily so, said Dr. James Denton, Ph.D., Dept of Poultry Science, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. We are, however, probably more aware of the risks with today’s increasingly accurate testing and diligent surveillance, he said.

Campylobacter (Campy) is a widespread germ that lives inside healthy chickens and is found in much raw poultry. While it’s the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s also a pretty weeny germ, doesn’t keep multiplying on the meat and is easily destroyed by heat. (The germ counts may even wimp out with freezing, some studies are finding.)

Interestingly, while we’re being led to fear Campy in poultry, half of all food-borne Campy infections have been traced to raw milk, according to the CDC. So there are very simple things we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Few of us eat uncooked poultry, and wisely so, but it is every bit as important to avoid raw milk.

Even so, the CDC reported this past April that since 1998, the rate of Americans getting sick from Campy has dropped 30% to 12.68 cases per 100,000 people, according to Dr. Richard Raymond, food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s partly due to multiple strategies that have been implemented in agricultural practices, processing and retail handling to control contamination from a number of germs, such as salmonella. In 1998, the food industry adopted a mandatory science-based, food safety preventative management system for meats and poultry, called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP).

Not to downplay the importance of food borne pathogen control because it is being taken quite seriously, but many food, infectious disease and agricultural experts are questioning the methodology and interpretations of the data in the Consumer Reports article. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly easy to vary findings depending on collection methods, what products are selected, their age, packaging, storage and what is tested for. Its worrying findings are quite different from other larger, more comprehensive studies. The extreme increase in contamination levels they reported is also uncertain, given they didn’t test samples from the same stores as in 2003. The USDA’s tests have recently identified only 11% of the chickens it tested as positive for salmonella, compared to 16% last year.

The prevalence of Campy and salmonella are also being tracked by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, a joint project of the USDA, FDA and CDC. Compiling the data from all of their laboratories, they reported about 48% of the samples had detectible levels of Campy. And a large USDA study led by Dr. Norman Stern, a microbiologist at the Poultry Microbiological Safety Research Unit in Athens, GA, showed only 26% of the chickens sampled had any detectible level of Campy. This much larger study was conducted over 13 months and included 4,200 samples. It’s believed to be a much more definitive study than the Consumer Reports paper which looked at only 525 selected samples.

But simply detecting the presence of Campy or Salmonella organisms is not a measure of disease risk, said Dr. Stern. Also not all species cause disease, so generic testing for Campy, for example, that doesn’t differentiate the types could overestimate the risk, he said. “Consumer Reports confirmed that its study did not conduct counts of bacteria cultured from its samples nor serotyping to identify those isolates of campylobacter or salmonella known to cause disease,” reported Feedstuffs.com

Research is ongoing to understand and reduce the risks of these pathogens. Campy is a difficult organism to isolate and culture, and there are difficulties with consistency and accuracy of today's measures for determining risk, said Dr. Denton. A large study involving 25,000 samples, examining 4,200 gene sequencing to better determine the risk potential is currently underway, which should offer some of the best evidence-based science yet, which the food industry can use to better protect us.

In the meantime, is there need for alarm?

While special interest groups mount fears of a problem with inadequate safeguards and want us to believe that nothing is being done to keep our food safe, that is not the reality. Certainly not for the thousands of people devoting their careers to food safety. But the body of the most careful evidence continues to indicate our food supply is the safest in the world and is the safest we’ve ever enjoyed in the history of our country.

It’s so easy, surrounded by today’s scary claims, to forget that as recently as 1900, 40% of Americans died from infectious diseases, and diarrhea and enteritis was the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

©Sandy Szwarc 2006

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