A report to be published by Consumer Reports magazine showing distressingly high rates of Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination of chicken purchased at retail need not be interpreted by the poultry industry as a blanket condemnation of the industry’s processing practices.

That’s the recommendation of Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the organization that publishes the magazine. She told MEATPOULTRY.com: "The study shows the industry is actually doing better."

She noted that CU’s previous analysis of retail chicken, conducted in 2007, showed an 80-percent contamination rate by Salmonella and/or Campylobacter; the current study drops the rate down to 66 percent. Moreover, "if you look at the data, this time there are major differences between companies and categories of chicken. Perdue, for example, was significantly better than Foster Farms and Tyson." Indeed, the CU data show a total contamination rate for Perdue brand chicken of 44 percent, while more than 80 percent of Foster Farms and Tyson chickens were contaminated.

Still, the magazine warns consumers not to let down their guard. "They must cook chicken to at least 165º F and prevent raw chicken or its juices from touching any other food," according to the article, which will be published in the January 2010 issue.

Unsurprisingly, the National Chicken Council quickly criticized the report. "A much more comprehensive survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found Salmonella and Campylobacter on fewer raw chickens than Consumer Reports. More important is the fact that USDA found that the levels of microorganisms present are usually very low. Consumer Reports failed to perform this analysis. The USDA survey also showed that poultry processing greatly improves the microbiological profile of raw chickens. In fact, the industry does an excellent job in providing safe, wholesome food to American consumers," the Council claimed in a statement, which admitted that "raw chicken may have some microorganisms present, but these are destroyed by the heat of normal cooking."

Richard Lobb, NCC spokesman, told MEATPOULTRY.com that another problem with the CU study is that does not take into account global data. "The EU has about the same rate of Salmonella contamination as the U.S. does, and most of their chicken is air-chilled." Consumer Reports found that organic, air-chilled chicken had a much lower contamination rate than other chicken, but Lobb said other comparisons suggest "it doesn’t make that much difference."

The study included 382 chickens purchased at more than 100 stores in 22 states, including mainstream supermarkets, high-end organic-oriented supermarkets, and mass merchandisers such as Walmart. Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farms were the only company brands tested; the study also included 30 nonorganic store brands, and nine organic store brands, five of which were labeled "air-chilled." Campylobacter was present in 62 percent of the samples and Salmonella in 14 percent. Just over a third of the chickens, 34 percent, were clear of both pathogens, more than double the percentage a similar study found in 2007 but less than the 51 percent found in 2003. Store-brand chickens had no Salmonella at all, "showing that it’s possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacterium riding along," the article states. "But as our tests showed, banishing one bug doesn’t mean banishing both: 57 percent of those birds harbored Campylobacter."

"There doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet" to prevent chickens from pathogenic contamination, Halloran told MEATPOULTRY.com. She recommended that the poultry industry try to improve the contamination rate in two ways: "Look toward the industry’s best practices, the best companies, and do any specific thing they’re doing that’s working. And second, work harder. Control is in the execution as much as in the plan. With bacteria, you have to tend to every step."

She said that CU supports a new regulation from USDA limiting the contamination rate of Campylobacter; at present there is no such regulation. "We assume a Campylobacter regulation will be forthcoming in the next regulatory round," NCC’s Lobb told MEATPOULTRY.com, "and we’re also assuming that it will include some kind of requirement for a treatment."

But Halloran hopes the industry itself will take the initiative. "The industry shouldn’t have to wait for a regulation, it should take care of this on its own." She added: "One thing that strikes me is that of all the food we typically buy in the store, only poultry is routinely contaminated with these levels of disease-causing bacteria."