Chicken, Bacteria & Antibiotics

The Space Shuttle Discovery lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Friday, Sept.11, 2009. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) AP Photo/Reed Saxon

A consumer magazine says it found harmful bacteria, much of it drug resistant, in almost half the chickens it bought from stores around the country.

A bacterium that causes food poisoning, campylobacter, was found in 42 percent of 484 fresh broiler chickens tested for a survey in the January issue of Consumer Reports. The magazine said Tuesday that another bacterium, salmonella, was found on 12 percent of the chickens. Both bugs can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and sometimes death.

The report highlighted that 90 percent of the campylobacter samples and 34 percent of the salmonella resisted treatment by antibiotics such as tetracycline, meaning sick people would be harder to treat and stay sick longer.

"That's a very uncomfortable starting point, and it goes to reinforce the growing concern about the use of antibiotics in livestock production," said David Pittle, vice president for technical policy at the magazine's publisher, Consumers Union.

The report says consumers can kill campylobacter and other germs by cooking chicken thoroughly so it is not pink. Experts recommend heating a whole chicken up to 180 degrees and chicken breasts to 170 degrees.

Bacteria can become stronger if they survive drug treatment. Many people have blamed the increasing prevalence of these superbugs on doctors' overprescribing antibiotics and patients' misusing them. Groups now argue farmers also are culpable because they use antibiotics on barnyard animals to prevent illness and speed growth.

They want Congress and the president to enact a law restricting the drugs' use in animals.

Pharmaceutical companies and producers have fought back. Ronald Phillips, a spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents animal drug companies, said the drugs protect animals from illness.

"In addition to making farmers more efficient, there is also a disease prevention role that that is playing," Phillips said. "Because when you stop that use, those animals get sick."

Sierra Club and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy had similar results from a smaller-scale survey also released Tuesday, in which it tested 200 whole chickens and 200 packages of ground turkey bought at stores in Des Moines, Iowa, and Minneapolis.

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said the surveys were misleading and did not show that producers have cut back on some antibiotics usage.

"There is nothing in either of those studies that I know of that actually ties resistance to usage of antibiotics in live animals," Lobb said.

The Food and Drug Administration oversees animal pharmaceuticals. It proposed guidelines in September for drug makers to rely on when determining whether new animal drugs would increase the problem of drug-resistant bacteria.

The agency also banned a poultry antibiotic two years ago because of evidence it makes people more susceptible to becoming ill from drug-resistant campylobacter. But the drug, Baytril, is still on the market as its manufacturer, Bayer, fights the ban. Bayer argues most illnesses aren't caused by tainted grocery-store chicken.

Pittle said Consumers Union wants Bayer to withdraw the drug. The organization also is asking the Agriculture Department to set up a program to test for campylobacter.

Steven Cohen, a department spokesman, said the agency is in the beginning stages of creating a campylobacter testing program. It already analyzes random samples for salmonella.


By Emily Gersema
  • John Esterbrook

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