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Is Your Chicken Dinner Safe?

A new study by Consumer Reports takes an in-depth look at the safety of the chickens we feed our families.

"Early Show" consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen says that Consumer Reports tested whole chickens for two types of bacteria that can make you very sick.

Consumer Reports' Chicken Findings

From the farm to the factory to the family table, chicken is one popular protein in the U.S.

But just how safe are those birds we're eating?

According to Consumer Reports' Urvashi Rangan, director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union, they're not safe enough.

Rangan told CBS News, "It's a dirty industry and it needs to be cleaned up."

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Consumer Reports purchased 382 raw whole broiler chickens from more than 100 stores in 22 states and tested for salmonella and a dangerous bacteria called campylobacter.

And in Consumer Reports' findings, nearly two-thirds of the chickens tested had either one or both pathogens, Rangan said.

Koeppen said 62 percent of the birds had some level of campylobacter, 14 percent had salmonella, and nine percent had both. Only 34 percent of the chickens were completely clean of both pathogens.

Rangan said, "You can't see these pathogens, so you must assume that any piece of raw meat that you're handling has some level of pathogen on it."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates salmonella and campylobacter from chicken and other foods infect 3.3 million Americans, hospitalize over 26,000, and kill more than 650 every year.

Anna Pelesh, 13, who got sick from salmonella, blames undercooked chicken tenders for her battle with salmonella.

"I think it was the most painful thing I've ever experienced," she told CBS News.

She's now a more careful eater.

"I eat anything I want," Pelesh said, "but with meat, I always check to make sure it's done to my liking."

The National Chicken Council, an organization that represents chicken producers in the U.S., said in a statement to CBS News, "Like all fresh foods, raw chicken may have some microorganisms present, but these are destroyed by the heat of normal cooking. ... The industry does an excellent job in providing safe, wholesome food to American consumers."

But Rangan says more needs to be done before chickens ever reach the American consumer.

"The government needs to take a look at what measures work, what measures don't," Rangan said, "and need to step up the standards so less contaminated birds are sold to consumers overall."

The most recent USDA tests showed lower percentages than the Consumer Reports test for both salmonella and campylobacter. It's important to note that while chicken processors must obey specific rules on salmonella, no federal standards for campylobacter currently exist.

The presence of bacteria on a chicken does not mean you will automatically get sick, Koeppen said, but there are some important tips you can follow to help protect yourself:

• Shop for meat last.
• Reach for meat in bottom and back of cooler
• Reach for meat with plastic bag and keep chicken in bag

• Don't rinse chicken in sink. Dip in pot of water and then pour out water
• Designate specific raw meat cutting board.
• Put directly into dishwasher after using.

• Always make sure chicken is cooked to at least 165 degrees F.
• Put meat thermometer into the chicken thigh for best results.