Jenelle Dorner, 32, of Bloomington, Indiana, doesn’t eat chicken. In fact, she hardly eats anything. “Each night while I sleep, I’m fed nutrients and fluids by IV,” says the married mother of one. Eight years ago, Dorner developed gastroparesis, a condition that delays or prevents food from reaching the intestines, where nutrients are absorbed. The possible cause? A hearty helping of bacteria-ridden chicken she ate at a restaurant 14 years ago.
Her story is an extreme one, but poultry can make you sick as easily today as it did to Dorner when she bit into her destructive dinner. In fact, there is a 50 percent chance that the bird you bring home from the grocery store will contain Campylobacter (known as campy for short), the bacteria that was lurking in Dorner’s undercooked entrée. The pathogen, found in a chicken’s intestinal tract, causes no harm to the animals, but it can make humans very ill, sometimes fatally, if high cooking temperatures don’t kill it. Seeing as how the average American puts away more than 42 pounds of poultry per year (equal to 222 chicken breasts), your chances of getting sick are considerable. An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year in the United States, and during the past decade, poultry has caused more cases than any other individual food group, including vegetables, fruit, seafood and beef, according to data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food and health watchdog group in Washington, D.C.
“Infections of campy are so common that many of us have probably already had it at least once,” says Robert Tauxe, M.D., deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases in Atlanta.
Dorner’s ordeal began in 1995, when she was a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her father took her to a restaurant to celebrate her 19th birthday, and she ordered chicken. “I remember thinking it was slightly pink, but other than that, it seemed fine,” she says. Three days later, Dorner began vomiting and experiencing stomach pains and diarrhea. Doctors at the student health center suspected a virus and sent her home with instructions to stay hydrated. But her condition worsened. “I was running a fever, couldn’t keep anything down and had bloody diarrhea,” Dorner recalls. She returned to the health center, where they took a stool sample and admitted her to the hospital. Dorner’s lab work revealed that she had contracted campy. After taking the antibiotic Cipro, she felt better, but her digestive system was never the same. In 2001, Dorner began having severe abdominal pain and couldn’t eat a meal without vomiting, the first signs of her gastroparesis. During the next five years, her condition progressed to full-blown digestive failure. “My doctors won’t ever be certain, but they believe that my campylobacter infection 14 years ago could have weakened my digestive system and set the stage for the gastroparesis,” Dorner says. “I was completely healthy until I had that meal.”
The average person ingests an estimated 8.1 micrograms of arsenic a day from chicken, according to a study from the USDA. And when you add that to the small amounts of arsenic you can be exposed to from other sources, such as drinking water, dust and arsenic-treated wood, a steady diet of chicken could quickly become risky. “Chronic exposure [10 to 40 micrograms a day, research suggests] is associated with an increased risk for skin, bladder and respiratory cancer,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the CSPI. Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C., told SELF that the arsenic found in some chickens could also come from environmental sources — insisting that there is no evidence that arsenic fed to chickens harms humans.
Along with arsenic, farmers are also allowed to lace their birds’ feed with antibiotics to control bacteria in crowded quarters. It sounds great in theory, but if you catch a strain of bacteria that was exposed to antibiotics in the chicken’s gut, and that strain “learned” to outsmart the antibiotics, then it will be harder for you to recover. “Antibiotic-resistant strains can last longer in your body and are more likely to lead to hospitalization,” Dr. Tauxe says. What’s more, these superbugs are on the rise, so even though the hens might be healthy, they may be making you sicker. (Lobb reinforced that “food safety is a top concern of the poultry industry” and that it has worked to adopt judicious use of antibiotics in its farming practices.)
Who’s guarding the henhouse?
It may as well be the fox himself, considering how little regulatory agencies are doing. The failures start on the farm. Farm is a quaint term that does nothing to conjure up the thousands of chickens crammed together in cramped quarters, making it easier for them to swap bacteria through direct contact and their water supply. When the birds arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are usually rinsed with hot water and chlorine — a step that can help reduce bacteria levels but isn’t required by the USDA. (The chlorine used for rinsing presents no safety issue for humans.) Unfortunately, dirty birds still go under the knife. It is here, when birds are gutted and defeathered, that bacteria travels from the intestines to the surface of muscle meat and the porous poultry skin. A USDA officer is on site in every plant, responsible for giving visual once-overs to about 35 birds a minute. “Inspectors look for things like whether entrails or feces have contaminated the outside of the bird and whether there are bruises or other signs of disease,” says Kenneth Petersen, D.V.M., assistant administrator in the Office of Field Operations at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. But a hen may look fine and still be loaded with microscopic salmonella or campylobacter.
The gold standard for detecting bacteria in chicken is microbial testing. The USDA requires that plants submit to a test for salmonella about once a year. (There is currently no regulatory test for campy.) And in recent months, the USDA has begun reallocating resources to test poorly performing plants more often and plants with better records less often. These cleaner plants undergo testing at least once every two years. During the testing period, the USDA pulls one sample from the plant per day for 51 days. “If more than 12 of those 51 samples test positive for salmonella, it’s deemed a performance-standard failure,” Dr. Petersen says. Put it another way: A plant can pass even if just under 20 percent of its poultry is riddled with potentially harmful pathogens. And that plant’s birds can end up in your grocery store.
In the event that a plant fails to meet even this low standard, the USDA doesn’t immediately suspend it. Instead, the agency performs a follow-up test “as soon as possible” and sends an officer to scrutinize the plant’s procedures. Once the officer determines the problem, he asks the plant to address it. If the plant refuses to comply, the USDA sends it a letter giving it three days to clean up its act. If that doesn’t work, the plant is suspended while it makes corrections. “Of the 135 letters we sent out in 2007, about 30 plants were suspended,” Dr. Petersen says. Public health experts are critical. “There are roughly 6,000 processing plants in the United States, and they’ve suspended only 30? Not impressive,” says Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished fellow of the Food Policy Institute for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., and former assistant secretary of agriculture under the Carter administration. “The USDA works feverishly to prevent a plant from shutting down; they go in and hold hands and grant extensions,” Tucker-Foreman says. A USDA spokesperson counters that safeguarding poultry, eggs and meat is the agency’s top priority, which it accomplishes “through a dedicated workforce, evolving technology and science and good business practices.”
To reduce your odds of purchasing meat from plants that have failed USDA inspection, you have to jump through numerous hoops. The USDA has begun posting the names and identifying digits, or P numbers, of offending plants on its Web site — a step that has reduced contamination rates, Tucker-Foreman says. To avoid buying a bird from a poorly performing plant, you can check the site monthly to print out the list, then compare it with the packages in your store or toss any chicken you already bought with matching numbers. But not all packages carry P numbers, and because plants can pump out bacteria-ridden chicken and still pass inspection, there is still no guarantee that your bird is bacteria-free.
Debugging the birds
What should be happening to chicken before it lands in your #4 deli special? Ridding roasters of illness-causing bacteria must begin on the farm. “The industry knows how to produce safer poultry; they’re just not doing it as carefully as they should,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City and author of "What to Eat" (North Point Press). Less crowding in chicken coops and supplying chlorinated drinking water for the birds are a start. But to help completely eradicate pathogens, the industry should work to rid chicken feed of bacteria by keeping bug-carrying rodents out of chicken houses, and it should test birds for bacteria before slaughter, Dr. Tauxe suggests.
“We do microbiological testing hourly, every day,” says Edward Sabatini, vice president of quality assurance, food safety and regulatory compliance at Burger King Corporation in Miami. The company holds all meat (it’s frozen) until results come back, so tainted patties can be weeded out. It also monitors its flocks’ feed and water and keeps wild birds, which can easily transfer salmonella to chickens, out of its breeder flocks. Plus, unlike other eateries, fast food chains standardize their cooking process (and cook meat well), so high cooking temperatures kill any wayward pathogen that has eluded Burger King’s tightly knit regulatory system.
In addition to putting controls in place on the farm, it’s also up to the government to develop stricter standards for plant performance. “When the 20 percent salmonella performance standard was set in 1996, the idea was we would gradually ratchet it down to around 5 percent or so,” says Michael Taylor, research professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C., and a former USDA administrator who helped write the original rule. “But the strategy of bringing the standard down was not pursued by subsequent departments, and there has been little follow-up,” he says.
Some progress has been made on the antibiotic-resistant front. The FDA removed one group of commonly used antibiotics called fluoroquinolones from use in poultry in 2005. “But tetracycline and sulfa drugs are still added to feed,” IATP’s Dr. Wallinga says. The issue is of such urgency that more than 350 groups, including the American Medical Association, have endorsed a bill — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act — that would phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics in animals. Log on to KeepAntibioticsWorking.org and click the Act Now button to send an automatic form letter in support of the bill to your congressional representatives.
If the state of chicken has ruffled your feathers and made you despair of a diet of tofu and lentils, take heart: There are things you can do to enjoy chicken without worry. Cook your chicken thoroughly (to kill off bacteria) and follow the steps outlined in “Have a safer dinner tonight.” You can also get on your squawk box and ask your congressperson to support the Food Safety Authority Modernization Act, which would enact measures to improve testing and inspection. Because, in the end, your tax dollars — which fund the USDA — should make the food you eat safer. “Why should we tolerate spending money on a program that defrauds the public with an archaic system and a seal that says our government has inspected this meat and it’s OK?” Tucker-Foreman asks. When it comes to tonight’s dinner, you’ll have to take your health into your own hands. The greatest weapon against food poisoning is your own roasting pan.
Additional reporting by Lee Cabot Walker.