If you were asked to name the worst food in your refrigerator—or anyone’s refrigerator—your choices would likely depend on which foods are your favorites, how much you follow news about food-related illnesses, and whether you have personal experience with food poisoning. According to some experts, however, the hands-down favorite as the worst food in your refrigerator is factory-farmed chicken.
On August 1, 2018, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that “no other food…is quite as problematic as chicken—the heart-healthy alternative to red meat” when it comes to contamination.” Why is chicken so harshly condemned?
- Chicken is especially susceptible to contamination with various dangerous pathogens, including bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics
- Raw chicken is overwhelmingly contaminated with salmonella as well as Campylobacter, Listeria, and Clostridium perfringens bacteria. Any mishandling of raw chicken can result in serious food poisoning. Mishandling includes allowing the raw chicken to cross-contaminate your sink, utensils, sponges, other food, cutting boards, or other items during preparation.
- Recent information from the CDC also notes that more documented deaths were attributed to chicken and turkey than to any other food.
Just how contaminated is chicken?
- A 2010 Consumer Reports analysis of chicken found two-thirds of whole chicken broilers tested had salmonella and/or campylobacter, which are two of the main causes of foodborne illness
- A 2013 Consumer Reports evaluation discovered potentially dangerous bacteria on 97 percent of chicken breasts, and half of them harbored at least one bacterium that resists three or more classes of antibiotics
- A 2018 Environmental Working Group report noted that 36 percent of chicken legs, thighs, wings, and breasts were contaminated with drug-resistant Enterococcus faecalis and that 79 percent of ground turkey also had drug-resistant bacteria
- Raw chicken is washed with a substance called PAA (peracetic acid), which is used to wash bacteria off of raw chicken. PAA reportedly “may be toxic to blood, kidneys, lungs, liver, mucous membranes, heart, cardiovascular system, upper respiratory tract, skin, eyes, central nervous system, teeth.”
Since there is no permissible exposure limit for PAA established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), dangers associate with PAA also extend to workers in poultry facilities who handle the birds.
What to do about chicken
If you want to avoid contaminated chicken, the obvious choice is to not eat factory farmed chicken. Organically raised chicken is the safest choice, as long as you cook it thoroughly. What’s important to remember is that the real health hazard is not the antibiotic residues in the birds; it is that the antibiotics used promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and those bacteria are harbored on the chicken. In the end, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria are what can kill you.
Therefore, it’s also important for you to:
- Avoid use of antibiotics unless they are absolutely necessary
- Eliminate any meat from your diet that is not certified organic since factory-farmed meats contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- Avoid use of antibacterial products in your home
- Keep any raw meat, fish, or fowl completely separate from any other food, utensils, or cutting surfaces. For example, designate one cutting board for meat only and mark it as such
- Always cook chicken to at least 165 degrees F and test with a meat thermometer
Business Insider. The foods that are most likely to make you sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 2018 Apr 23
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks—United States, 2009-2015. Surveillance summaries. 2018 Jul 27
Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports: Potentially harmful bacteria found on 97 percent of chicken breasts tested. 2013 Dec 19
Graddy S. Report: Superbugs found in more than three-fourths of U.S. supermarket meat. Environmental Working Group 2018 Jun 28
Kristoff K. Chicken most likely to make you sicken, CDC illness data show. CBS News. 2018 Aug 1
Mercola J. Between pathogens and chemical contaminants, chicken is best avoided. Mercola.com. 2018 Aug 1