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Super-Resistant Bacteria in Your Chicken Dinner

Of Birds and Bacteria 
Consumers Union Report 11dec02

"Superbugs" that resist the usual antibiotic treatments are nasty, and they could be in your chicken dinner. Here's how to protect yourself.

In the fall of 1997, almost three-fourths of the broilers that Consumer Reports bought in stores nationwide harbored salmonella or campylobacter--the bacteria most likely to give Americans food poisoning. Our new tests revealed contamination in about half of the chickens we analyzed, but there's a dark cloud within that silver lining. Many of the contaminated chickens harbored strains of salmonella and campylobacter that are resistant to antibiotics commonly used against those bugs, which can cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.

As a result, the estimated 1.1 million or more Americans sickened each year by undercooked, tainted chicken, or by food that raw chicken juices have touched, may stay sick longer, possibly with more serious illnesses. Doctors may have to prescribe several antibiotics before finding one that works. And patients may have to pay more to be treated.

For what is, to our knowledge, the largest nationally representative analysis of antibiotic resistance in store-bought chicken, we tested 484 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets and health-food stores in 25 cities nationwide last spring. Represented in our tests were 4 leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim's Pride, and Tyson), 14 supermarket brands, 9 premium brands (usually from smaller companies, usually more expensive, labeled as raised without antibiotics, and including free-range and organic brands), and 2 kosher brands.

Our shoppers packed the raw birds in coolers and shipped them overnight to a lab. There, tests determined whether salmonella and campylobacter were present, showed whether those bacteria were resistant to a range of human antibiotics, and measured the chickens' total plate count, an indicator of spoilage. Key findings:

Campylobacter was present in 42 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 12 percent. Five percent of all chickens had both campylobacter and salmonella; 51 percent had neither.

No major brand was less contaminated than others overall. Pilgrim's Pride had an exceptionally low incidence of salmonella but, along with Tyson, a higher incidence of campylobacter than most other brands.

All 12 samples from Ranger, a premium brand sold only in the Northwest, were free of campylobacter and salmonella. Ranger's chickens also had among the fewest bacteria that can cause spoilage. Ranger was the only brand that was clean across the board.

Ninety percent of the campylobacter bacteria tested from our chicken and 34 percent of the salmonella showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.

To see whose chickens harbored bacteria and how many of those bacteria remained unaffected by antibiotics, see How contaminated? How resistant?. We've also deciphered the claims you're likely to find on packages of chicken, including free-range, organic, and natural, in Behind the labels.


Since 1998, a federally mandated system called HACCP (pronounced hass-ip) has been the consumer's main protection against contaminated poultry, meat, and seafood. The initials stand for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, and the system requires chicken producers to spell out where contamination might occur during processing, then build in procedures to prevent it.

After slaughter, for instance, chickens typically become contaminated with bacteria naturally found in their digestive tract, so processors spray carcasses inside and out with an approved disinfectant. Later, the birds are submerged in an icy wash that must chill them from about 100' F to below 40'.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors monitor HACCP plans and sit on production lines, rejecting carcasses that pass by with visible signs of illness or filth. They also test random samples for the presence of salmonella, but, unfortunately, not for campylobacter. Studies that could create a standard for campylobacter testing are under way, a USDA spokesman says, but no time frame has been set for putting tests in place.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been a significant reduction in major foodborne illnesses since HACCP was implemented. Still, the system has shortcomings. USDA inspectors at meat and poultry plants are failing to spot faults in HACCP plans, according to a report issued last August by the General Accounting Office, the government watchdog agency. The agency concluded that inspectors missed problems or, when they found them, didn't require quick corrections. "As a result," the report said, "consumers may be unnecessarily exposed to unsafe foods that can cause foodborne illnesses."

HACCP protections have become even more important with the discovery of chickens harboring antibiotic-resistant strains of campylobacter, salmonella, and enterococcus (a germ linked with deadly hospital-acquired infections).

Antibiotics--which may include, experts say, low doses of human drugs such as penicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline--are given to chickens to prevent or reduce sickness and to speed growth. That practice is based on studies dating to the 1950s that showed animals given antibiotics reach their market weight faster, though perhaps only a day faster, than untreated animals.

When birds actually get sick, perhaps with respiratory disease from Escherichia coli picked up from their own droppings, they need full-strength antibiotics for a short time. Flocks are too big for veterinarians to treat individual birds, so all birds may receive antibiotics in their drinking water.

These drugs kill not only the bacteria that cause chickens to become sick, but also some of the many other types of bacteria that normally live inside chickens. Their routine use in so many birds sets the stage for the evolution of drug-resistant microbes that multiply around chicken coops, each of which can hold up to 20,000 birds. Bacteria that survive drug treatment may eventually contaminate carcasses during slaughtering and processing. And if chicken isn't cooked thoroughly enough to kill those bacteria, they could end up on your dinner plate, then colonize your intestines.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can enter your system from an outside source, such as undercooked chicken, but bacteria that normally live inside you can also develop resistance--as a result, for example, of the overuse or misuse of prescription antibiotics.

In either case, once the bacteria are in you, they may stay. Some stay for a short time, causing acute illness; others live peacefully in your digestive tract only to cause hard-to-treat disease when transferred to the bloodstream or urinary tract. Danish researchers recently found that when healthy volunteers ate just one meal contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacterium Enterococcus faecium that came from chicken or pork, the bug lingered in the volunteers' intestinal tracts for up to 14 days. Antibiotic-resistant E. faecium does not cause disease if confined to your intestines, but if it escapes into your bloodstream, say during surgery, it can be fatal.

Also disheartening is that resistance can be "catching." Certain bacteria tend to carry their resistance genes on circular strips of DNA, called plasmids, that can move to other bacteria, conferring resistance upon them as well. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria in undercooked chicken, for instance, could pass on their resistance to other bacteria already living in your intestines and make it hard to treat any infection those bacteria might eventually cause.

Although stronger-than-usual or extended doses of antibiotics might eventually kill the bugs in most people, resistant germs can be risky for the very young, the very old, and people with weakened immune systems.


What the CDC would later call a growing threat to public health was suspected as early as 1952, when two University of California bacteriologists warned, according to an article in Scientific American, that "chicks raised on antibiotics may develop resistant bacteria and poison people who eat them." The suspicion was confirmed in 1998, when CDC researchers studied salmonella-tainted chickens and stool samples from people sickened by salmonella. They found strains of the bacterium resistant to the human antibiotic gentamicin, a drug routinely injected into chicken eggs to reduce the chance of bacterial contamination.

In May 1999, investigators in Minnesota published findings that revealed the presence of drug-resistant campylobacter in store-bought chicken. They also found that newer fluoroquinolone antibiotics, such as the anthrax drug ciprofloxacin (Cipro), had rapidly lost effectiveness against foodborne campylobacter infections in people.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators concluded in October 2000 that two fluoroquinolone drugs made specifically for animals had spawned drug-resistant campylobacter in chickens' intestinal tracts. One of the drugs was quickly pulled off the market by its maker. The FDA proposed to withdraw approval of the second drug for treating disease in poultry, but its maker, Bayer, has challenged the proposal. Hearings were ongoing as of last fall.

Last September, the agency announced a proposal that companies submitting animal drugs for FDA approval assess their potential to promote resistance in humans.

The Animal Health Institute, which represents manufacturers of animal drugs, says antibiotic resistance is a top concern. But it maintains that the use of antibiotics in food animals poses an extremely small risk to human health and that the increase of bacterial resistance to antibiotics in humans is largely the result of overreliance on antibiotics in human medicine.

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council, an industry group, notes that "a very large percentage" of antibiotics used in chickens are not closely related to any drugs used in humans. The council also points to data indicating that the overall usage of antibiotics in animals of all kinds has been declining since 1999.

Indeed, four of the biggest U.S. poultry producers recently announced that they have reduced their use of certain antibiotics. Last year, Tyson said it had "chosen to discontinue its previously minimal use" of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in broiler chickens. Perdue says it stopped using fluoroquinolones last year. Foster Farms says it stopped using them approximately five years ago and does not give other important human drugs to chickens except when they're sick. Pilgrim's Pride says it stopped using fluoroquinolones in October 2000.

Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental group, applauds any cut in antibiotic use. "You don't ever want to use antibiotics where you don't need them," she says. "The rule in antibiotics is, if you use them you lose them." But Mellon points out that industry data don't provide specifics about antibiotic use and production that would be helpful in monitoring ways to prevent drug resistance. The government doesn't collect such data, either. "We know nothing," she says. "We are flying blind."

Moreover, although the use of fluoroquinolones may have tapered off, at least nine other antibiotics are approved for use in both chickens and humans, and some are used in substantial quantities. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that more than 380,000 pounds of erythromycin are given to poultry every year to hasten growth and prevent disease.

Our tests support the need for continued concern.


Overall, chicken had less bacterial contamination than in our 1997 study, but it was still far from pristine, and there was widespread antibiotic resistance in the bacteria.

Contamination. You need swallow just 15 to 20 salmonella bacteria, or about 500 campylobacter, to become ill. Both bugs can cause intestinal distress. Campylobacter can also cause serious complications, including meningitis, arthritis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a severe neurological disorder.

Of all the chickens we tested, 42 percent harbored campylobacter--down from 63 percent in our 1997 tests. Among big brands, incidence ranged from 34 percent, in Perdue, to 56 percent, in Tyson. Supermarket brands as a whole were in the middle of that range.

Twelve percent of all chickens harbored salmonella, as against 16 percent in 1997. Pilgrim's Pride had an extremely low incidence of salmonella: Only 1 percent of its chickens were contaminated. (Pilgrim's Pride was in the news for less laudable reasons last October, when a company it owns recalled more than 27 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken deli meat. The meat was possibly contaminated with listeria bacteria.)

As a group, the premium chickens were not significantly more free of microbes than others. On average, 33 percent were contaminated with campylobacter; 12 percent with salmonella. That said, the five premium brands labeled organic or free-range had no salmonella, and one of those, the free-range Ranger, also had no campylobacter, at least in the 12 samples we tested. We wondered whether Ranger's birds were treated differently from most others, so, without revealing our results, we checked with Rick Koplowitz, chief executive officer of Draper Valley Farms, which raises Ranger chickens. His answer revealed no unusual HACCP steps that would have made those birds cleaner.

Both kosher brands represented in our tests, Empire and Rubashkin's Aaron's Best, had a relatively high incidence of salmonella: Five of 20 samples of Empire and 1 of 6 samples of Aaron's tested positive. The incidence of campylobacter in Empire's chickens was slightly lower than the average for all chickens. None of Aaron's chickens had campylobacter.

We're still pondering one interesting result from our tests: Of 97 chickens from three processing plants in the Southwest and sold under the Pilgrim's Pride or Tyson name, only one harbored salmonella. That could result, perhaps, from drier weather or different processes in the plants. In any case, a Southwestern origin didn't make a difference when it came to campylobacter.

Spoilage. As a check of freshness, we measured total plate count, testing chickens for a broad class of bacteria whose presence in large numbers can make foods smell or feel slimy, though they generally don't make you sick. Only 12 of the broilers we tested, or 2 percent, had a total plate count high enough to suggest they were almost spoiled. That's a bit better than in our 1997 study, when we found 5 percent of birds had nearly gone bad. The 12 in this study came from 6 different brands. Chickens from the premium brand Bell & Evans were relatively high in spoilage bacteria. It's possible that those birds stayed in the case too long: Some Bell & Evans birds we bought didn't have a sell-by date.

Antibiotic resistance. Despite the chicken producers' announcements and the premium-chicken label claims, antibiotic resistance is still a concern, especially in chickens harboring campylobacter.

Our tests showed that if you are sickened by one of those chickens, two commonly used antibiotics--tetracycline, an older but still important drug used against germs from pneumonia to chlamydia, and erythromycin, an option for patients allergic to penicillin--may not help. In 66 percent of the campylobacter-contaminated chickens, the bacteria were resistant to tetracycline. In 20 percent, they were resistant to erythromycin.

Your chances of being cured by the usual doses of two fluoroquinolones, ciprofloxacin and ofloxacin, may also be limited. The latest figures from the FDA, reported in 2001, indicate that 11,477 Americans were infected in 1999 by fluoroquinolone-resistant campylobacter in chicken.

Antibiotic-resistant campylobacter appeared even in chickens from the two brands labeled "certified organic," Rosie and Springer Mountain Farms. That isn't as surprising as it might sound. Although antibiotics are not allowed in organic poultry, and farmers must demonstrate to organic certifiers that they have not been used, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are ubiquitous and can persist in the environment for years. In any case, we learned after our tests were finished that Springer Mountain Farms had taken the organic claim off its label.

In 19 percent of the chickens contaminated with salmonella, the bacteria were resistant to ampicillin, used against a dozen or more different bacterial infections. In 17 percent, bacteria were resistant to tetracycline.

Six salmonella-tainted samples from the two kosher-chicken companies showed no antibiotic resistance.


Chicken becomes contaminated long before you put it in your shopping cart. For that reason, the first line of attack needs to be a change in food-safety policies. But because consumers are the last line of defense against unsafe food, we've also listed steps you can take.

What policymakers can do:

What you can do:

The numbers


Below, the percent of tested chickens that harbored the two main foodborne disease-causing bacteria. For each major brand, we analyzed, on average, about 75 chickens; for supermarket brands, we analyzed a total of 75; for premium brands, a total of 82. If salmonella and campylobacter hitched a ride on the same carcass, consumers would have a good indication of what not to buy, but the presence of the two bugs often didn’t track, as is evident with Pilgrim’s Pride. Brands are ranked based on contamination with campylobacter, which is more prevalent than salmonella and more likely to be resistant to common antibiotics.

=Premium Brands (Bett & Evans, Ranger, Readington Farms, Rocky, Rocky Jr., Rosie, Springer Mountain Farms, Wegmans Premium, Wild Harvest; B=Perdue; C=Foster Farms; D=Supermarket Brands (Albertson's, Big Bear, Cub Foods, Dominick's, Giant Eagle, Giant Gold Star Meats, Jewel, Publix, Safeway, Shaw's, Stop & Shop White Gem, Tops, Trader Joe's, Wegman's; E=Pilgrim's Pride; F=Tyson


To qualify for our test of antibiotic resistance, a chicken had to be contaminated with campylobacter or salmonella. We then tested whether those germs were resistant to major antibiotics often used to treat people. "Somewhat resistant" means that the growth of bacteria on a sample of chicken was inhibited, but not stopped, by an antibiotic at a normal dosage. If you were to become infected with such bacteria, it could take longer--or require more than the typical dosage--for antibiotics to cure you. "Resistant" means that the bacteria survived a normal dose of the antibiotic and would therefore continue to make you sick. Your doctor would then have to prescribe a different antibiotic and hope that it would do the trick.

Tests of antibiotic resistance were performed on campylobacter from 155 chicken samples and on salmonella from 58 chicken samples. Because the relatively small sample size limits the meaningfulness of differences among brands and even categories of chicken, the table shows drug sensitivity across all samples. Antibiotics are in alphabetical order.

Antibiotic      	   Campylobacter    	    Salmonella      .
			Somewhat 		Somewhat 
			resistant  Resistant	resistant  Resistant 
Ampicillin 		- 	   - 		0% 	   19% 
Ceftriaxone 		- 	   - 		10 	   0 
Ciprofloxacin 		1%	   26% 		0 	   0 
Clindamycin 		8 	   21 		- 	   - 
Erythromycin 		45 	   20 		- 	   - 
Gentamicin 		2 	   8 		0 	   5 
Nalidixic acid 		- 	   - 		0 	   3 
Ofloxacin 		0 	   26 		- 	   - 
Tetracycline 		1 	   66 		0 	   17 
Trimethoprim  		- 	   - 		0 	   0

Behind the labels

How meaningful are the labels on chicken packages? Sometimes, not very. When we visited one free-range chicken farm a few years ago, we found a penned, 10x30-foot patch of dirt topped with chicken manure and grass. A second "range" consisted of a larger pen, but the birds chose to stay in a small area filled with weeds and an old drum. Other labels are more meaningful. Here's a primer. For more information on these labels and others, visit www.eco-labels.org, a site sponsored by Consumers Union.

Free-farmed. The American Humane Association has verified that the animals had, among other things, access to clean water and food, and that no antibiotic was used for growth promotion.

Free-range, Free-roaming. Poultry has had "access" to the outdoors, even if that means only that the door to the coop was left open for a few hours.

Fresh. The bird's internal temperature has never dropped below 24' F. Nevertheless, we've found plenty of "fresh" chicken frozen hard as a rock.

Kosher. This poultry was prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. Salt was added as part of the process.

Natural. No artificial ingredients or color were added, and the bird was "minimally processed." This isn't a helpful label, since there is no verification system.

No additives. Additives are agents such as coloring, preservatives, or flavorings, including salt. The USDA and FDA share authority over the approval of additives in meat and poultry, but there is no standard guidance or verification for manufacturers using the "no additives" label. Other chemicals, such as pesticides and antibiotics, can still be used in producing chickens with this label.

No antibiotics. Chickens were raised without such drugs, but unless the chicken has a certified "organic" label, it is unlikely the claims have been verified.

No chemicals added. There's no standard guidance or verification system for manufacturers using this label. Antibiotics and additives are not legally classified as chemicals; presumably, they could be added by a manufacturer using this label.

No hormones. The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in raising poultry, so this claim could be used on all chickens. Birds with this boast are just crowing about following the law.

Organic. These chickens are certified as having been raised without the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, and artificial ingredients. [Emphasis added by mindfully.org]

source: Link [link extremely long] 11dec02

Study finds more virulent bacteria in U.S. poultry RANDI FABI / Reauters 10dec02

Consumers Union Letter to Bayer

December 10, 2002

Dr. Atilla Molnar
Bayer Corporation
100 Bayer Rd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15205-9741

Dear Dr. Molnar,

Consumers Union urges you to end Bayer's opposition to the proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on the use of Bayer's antibiotic, Baytril, in treating chickens and turkeys.

Baytril is a fluoroquinolone antibiotic, a class of drugs that also includes ciprofloxacin (Cipro). Fluoroquinolones are considered one of the most valuable classes of antibiotic drugs available to physicians treating human patients because of their effectiveness against a broad range of disease-causing bacteria and relative lack of side effects. Ciprofloxacin is the antibiotic most often used to treat severe cases of food poisoning caused by bacteria.

Consumers Union recently conducted a nationally representative study of antibiotic resistance in store-bought chicken in which we tested 484 fresh, whole broilers bought in 25 metro areas nationwide last spring (study enclosed). We found that 42% of the chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter. Of the Campylobacter cultures isolated from samples of contaminated chickens, 26% were resistant to ciprofloxacin. This figure is higher than the data from separate and independent tests conducted over the past three years by the federal National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), which found 13.2%, 9.9% and 11.3% of Campylobacter isolates from chicken to be resistant to ciprofloxacin in 1998, 1999 and 2000, respectively.

The FDA has determined that use of Baytril in poultry contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause severe food poisoning in humans and has proposed banning the use of all flouroquinolones in poultry production. The American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also supported the FDA's action in this area.

Based on our own independent study, Consumers Union agrees with the serious health concerns raised by the FDA, and reiterated by the CDC and the American Medical Association. In our opinion, the collective evidence of a mounting public health problem is clear and compelling.

Therefore, we urge you to follow the lead of Abbott Laboratories, which withdrew its poultry drug in compliance with FDA's ban on flouroquinolones in poultry production.

Rather than your company's continuing its current sale of Baytril for use with poultry production and contesting the FDA's proposed ban, we call on you, as Bayer's new CEO, to show your company's concern for public health by immediately and permanently withdrawing Baytril from the market for such purposes.

Thank you,
R. David Pittle, PhD, Senior Vice-President, Technical Policy
Edward Groth, PhD Senior Scientist
Jean Halloran, Director, Consumer Policy Institute
Michael Hansen, PhD, Research Associate, Consumers Union

WASHINGTON - Americans sickened by chicken contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter may stay ill longer and pay more for treatment due to virulent strains of the bacteria that resist common antibiotics, Consumers Union said on Tuesday.

U.S. farmers have long used antibiotics to prevent contagious diseases in livestock grown for food and to increase growth. Consumers Union and other critics believe routinely feeding powerful antibiotics to livestock -- along with overuse of the drugs in humans -- is producing bacteria that are more difficult to treat.

In a nationwide analysis of brand-name poultry, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine found 90 percent of the campylobacter found in the poultry was resistant to one or more commonly used antibiotics, including tetracycline and erythromycin. Of the chickens with salmonella, 34 percent were resistant to antibiotics.

"Doctors may have to prescribe several antibiotics before finding one that works," said Doug Podolsky, senior editor of the magazine. "And patients may have to pay more to be treated."

The findings, published in the Consumer Report's January issue, were part of a larger study on the prevalence of salmonella and campylobacter in chicken. The bugs, which infect more than 1.1 million Americans annually, can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

McDonald's Corp. MCD.N , Wendy's International Inc. WEN.N , Tyson Foods Inc. TSN.N and closely held Perdue Inc. promised earlier this year that their poultry products would be free of certain antibiotics.


Consumer Union said it analyzed 484 raw chickens purchased at supermarkets in two dozen U.S. cities. Of the chickens, 42 percent were contaminated with campylobacter and 12 percent with salmonella.

Those rates of contamination were down significantly from the consumer group's last study in 1997 that found 63 percent of chickens tested had campylobacter and 16 percent had salmonella.

Raw chicken included in the study were sold by Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. CHX.N and privately held Foster Farms.

The National Chicken Council, which represents poultry farmers, said the decline in salmonella and campylobacter contamination showed the industry was taking the necessary steps against harmful bacteria.

The trade group also said it was misleading to focus on antibiotics resistance.

"Resistance to bacteria is by no means limited to raw poultry," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the trade group. "You have to look at its long-term use in human health and its effect."

Poultry farmers say a key source of antibiotic resistance comes from U.S. physicians being too quick to prescribe common antibiotics at the request of patients.


U.S. health officials have cautioned that some infections were becoming more difficult to treat.

"Unfortunately, some salmonella bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, largely as a result of the use of antibiotics to promote the growth of feed animals," according to documents previously issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consumers Union urged Congress to ban certain antibiotics in animals that are also regularly used for people.

The Food and Drug Administration in September proposed stricter regulations mandating drug companies to submit information about resistance risk when applying for approval for new animal drugs.

The European Union has had a long-standing ban on sales of four antibiotics for use in livestock feed. Other antibiotics are allowed, although some nations like Denmark and Sweden have called for a halt to prolonged use.

Consumers Union also recommended that USDA begin testing at poultry plants for campylobacter.

A USDA spokesman said the department was "laying the ground work" on testing for the bacteria but declined to elaborate.

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