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Half chickens harmful

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Posted on Fri, Dec. 13, 2002

Study: Bacteria lurk in about half of chicken sold
Many tainted birds carried strains that are resistant to antibiotics
Boston Globe

About half the chicken purchased in stores and supermarkets nationwide is tainted with bacteria most commonly associated with food poisoning, according to a Consumer Reports survey of 25 metropolitan areas.

The national consumer magazine's tests also indicated that the massive amounts of antibiotics fed to the chickens appear to be making humans increasingly resistant to the antibiotics.

Ninety percent of the contaminated chickens carried a strain of bacteria that showed resistance to at least one antibiotic. That would have been extremely rare a decade ago, said Dr. Sherwood Gorback, an infectious-disease specialist at Tufts University, near Boston.

"It's a big problem. One in five victims of food poisoning is now resistant to the most common group of antibiotics (fluoroquinolone) used to treat the illness," Gorback said.

"That's on the cusp of a failure rate that keeps us from prescribing the drug."

In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control recorded no evidence of such resistance, indicating the bacteria has genetically mutated to survive antibiotics.

On the positive side, Consumer Reports found contamination rates had dropped from five years ago, when three-quarters of the poultry tested was contaminated.

Properly cooking meat and handling utensils that come in contact with raw chicken can avoid infection. Still, 1.1 million Americans experience food poisoning from chicken each year.

Richard Lobb, the spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which oversees trade issues for a $40 billion retail industry, said antibiotic resistance in humans is too complicated to blame on a chicken. Researchers believe the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has speeded the evolution of harmful bacteria into treatment-resistant microbes.

Consumer Reports analyzed 484 fresh, whole broilers purchased from stores and supermarkets -- including organic outlets -- in 25 metro areas.

In results published in the January 2003 issue, campylobacter bacteria was present in 42 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 12 percent. Five percent of all chickens had both strains, and 51 percent had neither.

Ninety percent of the campylobacter bacteria and 34 percent of the salmonella showed resistance to one or more of nine antibiotics that included popular medications such as ampicillin, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, and tetracycline.

Of the more than two dozen brands tested, only Ranger, a chicken sold exclusively in the Northwest, was "totally clean," according to the report.

All the rest -- Pilgrim's Pride, Perdue, Bell & Evens, Safeway, Stop and Shop, Big Bear and Tyson, to name a few -- were implicated by Consumer Reports.

Ed Nicholson, of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, said that with 53 chicken plants in 16 states, Consumer Reports could not accurately summarize the quality of the Tyson product, which scored poorly in the survey, with more than 55 percent of the samples testing positive for salmonella.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed removing all fluoroquinolones from poultry production because the agency maintains it contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance.

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