WASHINGTON – The National Chicken Council is reminding consumers that 99.99 percent of the 160 million servings of chicken Americans consume every day are safe to eat. The NCC responded to a new study from Consumer Reports claiming that potentially harmful bacteria were found on 97 percent of chicken breasts the organization tested.

NCC noted that from 2001 to 2010 outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens declined more than 40 percent. Additionally, Salmonella in chickens has dropped by 55 percent in the past five years.

"The belief that affordable food means it is lower in quality or compromised in some way stands in stark contrast to the hard work and efforts of American agriculture, USDA and the hundreds of thousands of US farmers and food producers who work tirelessly to produce a quality protein that is the envy of the world and enjoyed by millions of Americans," said Mike Brown, NCC president.

In the report, "The High Cost of Cheap Chicken," Consumer Reports states bacteria that could make consumers sick was found on nearly all of the 316 raw chicken breasts its investigators purchased at retail. Specifically:

• About half of the samples contained at least one multi-drug-resistant bacterium, while slightly more than 11 percent of samples contained two or more multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

• Bacteria were more resistant to antibiotics approved for use in chicken production as growth promotants and disease prevention than those not approved for those uses.

• A sample of a Foster Farms chicken breast from a plant associated with the recent outbreak contained Salmonella Heidelberg that matched the one of the outbreak strains. Consumer Reports said it released its findings about the sample in October.

"Our tests show 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 multidrug 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 Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "Our survey also shows that consumers are making buying decisions based on label claims that they believe are offering them additional value when that is not in fact the case. The marketplace clearly needs to change to meet consumer expectations."

But NCC said proper handling and cooking of any fresh food is key to ensuring the food is safe to eat. Naturally occurring bacteria can be found on fresh agricultural products such as fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry — regardless of whether it's labeled "organic" or "natural".

"No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing," Brown added. "The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising/growing, handling and cooking it. Right now, we're at 99.9 percent but we're going to keep working to reach 100.

"We take the safety of our chicken very seriously," said Brown. "After all, our families are eating the same chicken as you and yours."