THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Potentially harmful bacteria was found on 97 percent of chicken breasts bought at stores across the United States and tested, according to a new study.
And about half of the chicken samples had at least one type of bacteria that was resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, the investigators found.
The tests on the 316 raw chicken breasts also found that most had bacteria -- such as enterococcus and E. coli -- linked to fecal contamination. About 17 percent of the E. coli were a type that can cause urinary tract infections, according to the study, published online and in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports.
In addition, slightly more than 11 percent had two or more types of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Bacteria on the chicken were more resistant to antibiotics used to promote chicken growth and to prevent poultry diseases than to other types of antibiotics, the study found.
These findings show that "consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multi-drug resistant. When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports.
The magazine has been testing U.S. chicken since 1998, and rates of contamination with salmonella have not changed much during that time, ranging from 11 percent to 16 percent of samples.
This is the first year that the study looked at six different bacteria. It found the following contamination rates: enterococcus (80 percent), E. coli (65 percent), campylobacter (43 percent), klebsiella pneumonia (14 percent), salmonella (11 percent) and staphylococcus aureus (9 percent).
Rangan said other countries do a better job of curbing chicken contamination. "There is no reason why the United States can't do the same," she said.
"We know especially for salmonella, other countries have reduced their rates," Rangan said. "Systemic solutions were implemented throughout the European Union. Government data show that in 2010, 22 countries met the European target for less than or equal to 1 percent contamination of two important types of salmonella in their broiler flocks."
Each year in the United States, 48 million people become sick and 3,000 die from eating tainted food. Contaminated poultry is the leading cause of such deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal government needs to do more to protect Americans, according to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. Much-needed measures include giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to mandate recalls of meat and poultry products, and prohibiting antibiotic use in food animals, except to treat sick ones, the authors suggest.
To help protect you and your family, Consumer Reports offered the following tips to ensure proper handling and cooking of chicken:
Wash your hands with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds before touching anything else when handling any type of meat or poultry -- frozen or fresh.
Designate a cutting board solely to be used for raw meat and poultry. When done using it, wash it immediately with hot soapy water or put it in the dishwasher.
Don't run faucet water over chicken before cooking.
Use a meat thermometer and always cook chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
When shopping, buy your meat last. Keeping chicken cold delays bacteria overgrowth. Place chicken in a plastic bag to prevent it from contaminating other food items.
Buying chicken raised without antibiotics helps preserve the effectiveness of these drugs. Don't be misled by labels like "natural" and "free range." Such chicken can still contain antibiotics.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about foodborne illness.
SOURCE: Consumer Reports, news release, Dec. 19, 2013