All About Food: Run a check on your chicken

The latest edition of Food & Wine magazine declares that "fish is the new chicken." Good thing, because chicken, America's most popular protein, has come under scrutiny recently because of food safety infractions that have caused food-borne illnesses.

Two major producers, Tyson and Foster Farms, have been cited in publications lately. Consumer Reports did a test of chickens from different sources, including organic brands, and found 97% of the breasts tested contained harmful bacteria, including campylobacter, salmonella and e coli.

Furthermore, The New York Times says that 40% of the poultry-related illnesses treated in hospitals are antibiotic-resistant, and that only one in 25 people who get ill are actually reporting their illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 48 million people a year fall sick from eating tainted foods and that "more deaths were attributed to poultry than any other commodity."

The National Chicken Council responded by saying that 100 million servings are eaten each year and 99.99% are consumed safely. It also said that eliminating all naturally occurring bacteria is not feasible and maintains that the proper cooking of poultry, to 165 degrees, kills bacteria.

The CDC also says that the presence of salmonella is common and acceptable in raw poultry with the proviso that it be properly cooked. However, some recent studies have shown that tougher strains can withstand the 165-degree threshold.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can only alert the public to a problem but doesn't have the authority to recall a product. That is left to the discretion of the manufacturer.

Costco recently pulled 22,000 packages of rotisserie chicken and 951 containers of chicken soup, leg quarters and chicken salad, but neither Costco nor Foster Farms recalled the raw chicken sold to consumers. Tyson did a recall after seven people were sickened, according to Food Safety News.

It is interesting to note that Sweden records zero levels of bacteria in chicken. It is also notable that the USDA announced that it will now allow four facilities in China to process poultry raised and slaughtered in the United States, Chile or Canada and then export the cooked poultry to the United States, according to the Huffington Post.

This is the first step in opening its lucrative beef market to American producers. Last year, a Chinese poultry supplier is thought to have provided certain restaurants in China with chicken fattened by large quantities of illegal drugs.

What is to be done? As individuals, we can write our Congress members to encourage them to pass a law giving the USDA the authority to recall poultry products. Also, the FDA should prohibit the use of antibiotics in animals, except to treat illness, and the injection of chicken eggs with antibiotics.

As consumers, we can all practice safe food handling. Check for the USDA rating of grade A. Fresh chicken can be kept safely in the refrigerator for two or three days if cooked. Freeze it and it will keep for two months. If not used by then, take it out and repackage it in a double layer of freezer wrap, aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Freezing doesn't destroy bacteria; it just makes it cold.

Don't thaw poultry on the counter. It needs two days in the refrigerator or overnight for boneless breasts. Cross-contamination should be carefully avoided. Wash your hands after handling. Don't wash the chicken, since washing spreads bacteria. Do wash knives and cutting boards. Cook chicken to 165 degree.

Don't be impressed by the words "cage-free" or "natural," since they can mean little. There is no inspection for "natural," and free-range doesn't specify the area of the range; it could be a few feet.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at

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