Consumer Reports article this month on “superbugs” in raw chicken breasts was taken to task last week for inaccuracy and sensationalism by Dr Richard Raymond in Food Safety News and by the Penn State Food Safety blog.
The report suggested that nearly 80% of the samples contained enteroccus, 65% contained E coli and that every one of the major brands contained “worrisome amounts” of bacteria, including those labeled “organic” or “antibiotic free.” However, they do not explain what a “worrisome amount” is. And as the critics noted, the study was not peer-reviewed.
But both articles criticize the use of the term “superbugs,” since multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria occur naturally, and even if they are resistant to three antibiotics, there is usually another antibiotic to which they will succumb.
And even if they are resistant to many antibiotics, this is more a problem in hospitals than in your kitchen, where there is little evidence that they cause harm. The CU report lists six classes of antibiotics, but three of them: enterococcus, generic E coli and Klebsiella pneumonia do not cause food-borne illnesses, according to the USDA, CDC and FDA. And Dr Raymond challenges their statement that the E. coli found on chicken could cause a bladder infection. He doesn’t agree.
He completely disagrees with the statement that “97% of the breasts we tested harbored bacteria that could make you sick” because most of the bacteria they found will not make you sick. In fact, he notes that the most recent USDA report found only 2.6% of broilers contained salmonella, the only one of the common bacteria that could actually make you sick. And he notes that there are number of varieties of E coli, most of which are not dangerous to humans.
While CU claims that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used in animal production, but neglects to mention that 40% of those antibiotics are not approved for human use and another 42% are oxy- and chlor-tetracycline antibiotics that were used in the 1950s but are no longer used in humans because there are now better antibiotics available.
Raymond also points out how ridiculous it is to imagine only treating the sick animals in a herd of, say, 30,000 chicks if a contagious disease struck the herd.
In fact, he notes, food-borne illnesses are down by 25% since 2000. However, as Penn State researchers noted this summer, chicken from Farmer's Markets is much more likely to be contaminated than those sold in supermarkets.
It is important that you handle chicken safely, not washing it to spatter bacteria everywhere, and clean your food tools and cutting board carefully after use, and if you do, you are taking very little risk. And always use a thermometer to see that chicken is cooked to 165 F.
Consumer Reports has a very capable staff of engineers doing product testing of cars, refrigerators and lawnmowers, but their science articles like this one and their nonscientific positions on biotechnology continue to be embarrassing.