Monday, November 30, 2009

Forget turkey -- worry about chicken

In case you think food editors spend too much time fussing about how to handle chickens and turkeys, this morning's news from Consumer Reports is a timely reminder.

It seems the magazine tested fresh, whole broiler chickens bought in 22 states and found that two-thirds of them showed signs of contamination by salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacteria involved in foodborne illness.

That was a slight improvement over the magazine's results in January 2007, when 8 of 10 broilers showed contamination. But it was still higher than results in 2003 that found 51 percent of chickens were contaminated. Here are the full results:

To do the test, Consumer Reports used an independent lab to check 382 chickens bought from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet, natural-foods or mass-merchandise stores in 22 states.

  • Among the cleanest -- or bacteria-free -- were air-chilled broilers (60 percent were free of any pathogens).
  • Among brands, Perdue broiler had the lowest rate of contamination (56 percent were free of both pathogens).
  • Tyson and Foster Farms showed the highest rate (less than 20 percent were free of both).
  • Store-brand organic chickens were free of salmonella but only 43 percent were free of campylobacter.

Before you get panicky, remember that bacterial contamination doesn't mean you can't cook the chicken. But it does mean that safe food handling is critical:

  • • Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest. Make chicken one of the last things you put in your cart before heading to the checkout, and don't let it sit in a closed, hot car while you run other errands.
    • Store raw chicken in your refrigerator below 40 degrees for no longer than a couple of days. If you're keeping it longer, freeze it.
    • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator or in cold water, checking frequently to make sure the water is cold. Never thaw poultry or meat on a counter. When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook thawed chicken right away.
    • Cook chicken to at least 165° degrees. Even if it’s no longer pink, it can harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer to be sure.
    • Beware of cross-contamination. Wash knives and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after handling raw chicken, wipe up spilled juices with a paper towel and discard it, and don’t return cooked meat to the plate that held raw meat.
    • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.