Small Study Finds E. coli Contamination on Nearly Half of Chicken Sold at Grocery Stores

A new study from a pro-vegetarian non-profit advocacy group indicates that nearly half the packages of ready-to-cook chicken products available at retail grocers are contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

According to a New York Times report on a “small study” conducted by the group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 48 percent of the 120 samples the group collected from grocery stores in 10 major U.S. cities contained at least some level of measurable E. coli bacteria.

The group collected samples of various types of chicken products commonly available at grocery stores in the U.S. Numerous name brands were included, such as samples from Pilgrim’s and Perdue, according to the report. Grocery chains like Kroger, Safeway, and Albertsons sold the samples taken for the study.

Some of the samples tested for E. coli levels higher than allowed by federal law for chickens leaving their processing plant, before they’re placed on store shelves.

Critics of the study, mostly pro-chicken advocates, say the research methods were flawed and it does not take into account the other means by which chicken or other foods at the grocery store can become contaminated.

A food safety expert at Penn State University said in an interview for the New York Times report, this most recent study does not account for the possibility of the samples they collected being contaminated after they left a processing facility en route to the store, or even at the store.

Indeed, this study is not the first of its kind and compared to some previous research, it actually downplays the likelihood pre-packed chicken or other meat products available at the grocery store are contaminated with various food-borne pathogens.

And while those studies have noted that the actual meat product was contaminated with the bacteria, the packaging – both inside and outside the plastic wrapping – was contaminated and poses a serious risk of cross-contamination to other products in the store. A consumer can spread food-borne bacteria like E. coli simply by handling a package of raw meat at the grocery. If the consumer doesn’t wash their hands before continuing their shopping trip, they risk contaminating every product they touch in the store.

This most recent study suggests the E. coli found in the samples of packaged chicken collected is an “indicator of fecal contamination,” suggesting the chicken left its farm contaminated. Federal regulations allow raw meats to contain some level of bacterial contamination, working on the theory that it will be killed during the cooking process. The study cited statistics showing that most chickens are not inspected at a farm; instead most are passed based on one chicken being declared free of dangerous levels of bacteria. The USDA requires one chicken for every 22,000 be inspected on large-scale farms. Smaller farms must submit tests showing their poultry is safe once a month.

E. coli poisoning can cause serious illness in certain individuals, especially children and the elderly. Early signs of infection are nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. More serious cases of E. coli poisoning require hospitalization for treatment.

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