The big news is that the UK has its first large outbreak of H5N1 in commercial poultry, a turkey farm in Suffolk. Retailers there are already moving to reassure the public. Although this is the UK’s largest turkey farm, large chains have been quick to say they do not sell its birds. The Talking Points have been ready for some time. You have nothing to fear but fear itself. It is perfectly safe to eat an infected bird if you cook it properly.
The US poultry industry is also ready, although they have assured us they are safe because they have excellent biosecurity. Just like the UK farms assured us. Good biosecurity is not all the US poultry industry has. They’ve also got a helluva lot of infected chickens, although not infected with H5N1. It’s salmonella and campylobacter, both human pathogens. This, from Consumer Reports:
In the largest national analysis of contamination and anti biotic resistance in store-bought chicken ever published, we tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re duce contamination. Among our findings:
Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.
There was an exception to the poor showing of most premium chickens. As in our previous tests, Ranger–a no-antibiotics brand sold in the Northwest–was extremely clean. Of the 10 samples we analyzed, none had salmonella, and only two had campylobacter.
Among all brands, 84 percent of the salmonella and 67 percent of the campylobacter organisms we analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics. (Consumer Reports)
Overall the rate of laboratory confirmed infections is down a bit from 2001, although everyone admits that only a fraction of foodborne illnesses are reported. Only a fraction of the reported cases identify a source and an agent. Consumer Reports found the organic and antibiotic free chickens to have strikingly higher rates of salmonella than the conventional birds (around 25% compared to 5%), but both had antibiotic resistant bugs, a legacy of decades of growth promoting antibiotic use in the poultry industry. (The one exception was organic Ranger brand, which had no salmonella in ten samples.)
But the major chicken contamination was with campylobacter, contaminating 81% in this sample compared to less than 50% in a similar survey in 2003. Here’s CDC’s portrait of a campylobacter foodborne infection:
Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within 2 to 5 days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts 1 week. (CDC)
CDC estimates about 1 million cases a year and 100 deaths. So this isn’t small potatoes in terms of illness and economic cost. At the moment USDA does collect data on campylobacter in processing plants, although this is allegedly coming soon. As Consumer Reports notes, whatever worked for salmonella is not working for campylobacter. Regulation has brought salmonella down substantially. The same needs to happen with campylobacter.
The punchline here is that protection against campylobacter and salmonella is the same as it is said to be for H5N1: proper preparation and cooking of poultry. Heating the bird to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. is sufficient to kill most pathogens, including those three. There is good case evidence that eating uncooked or undercooked parts of infected birds can lead to H5N1 infection in susceptible individuals. So can preparing the birds for cooking. Birds contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter are safe if properly prepared and cooked, but more than a million cases a year of infection with these organisms continue to occur. You make the inference.
Those are my Talking Points.