When I read the Consumer Reports’ article on the testing organization’s latest sampling results for retail chicken products, I was struck by the lack of consistency in how opinions from different groups were presented. The article, "The high cost of cheap chicken," presents the results of retail sampling of 316 packages of raw chicken breasts. The meat was sampled for Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, enterococcus and Klebsiella pneumonia. Sampling and antibiotic resistance testing of isolated organisms were conducted following National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring Study (NARMS) protocols.

The work done by Consumer Reports adds to the body of knowledge of the presence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria on ready-to-cook poultry products. One interesting finding is that they found no difference in the number and type of bacteria on conventionally raised chicken breasts and those labeled as either “organic” or “no antibiotics.”

Antibiotic use

The article is quick to blame antibiotic use on the farm as a culprit in the presence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics on the chicken sampled in the study, yet they do not share the resistance data for the bacteria collected from the chicken that was labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics.” This data, if it supported their position, might have been persuasive, but I guess it didn’t support their position.

Even without data, the article’s authors were able to find a reason to support the purchase of “no antibiotics” brands. The article says: “Still there are good reasons for selecting chickens raised without the use of antibiotics. Buying those products supports farmers who keep their chickens off unnecessary drugs, and that’s good for your health and preserves the effectiveness of antibiotics.” This sounds like an opinion, and not one supported by the facts that were presented in the article.

According to the article, “the Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.” The Consumers Union agenda bleeds through every page of the Consumer Reports article. For instance, the U. S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (USDA FSIS) proposed modernized poultry inspection system that will allow for a HIMP-style inspection system to be adopted across the poultry slaughter industry draws criticism because it puts the processing company in charge of individual carcass inspection. Affidavits from USDA inspectors at HIMP plants are cited, which allege that they were pressured to overlook possible food safety concerns to keep the line running. The poultry industry is assumed to have a self interest in mind in wanting to move to a HIMP-style inspection system, but the inspectors, and their union representatives, are not assumed to have any self interest in preserving the status quo to preserve jobs and union dues.

Making products safer for consumers

I suppose the biggest problem I have with the logic of the recommendations that Consumer Reports makes regarding making chicken safer is the supposition that more government control is what is going to fix the problem. Poultry producers already spend too much time and energy dealing with government mandates and performance criteria and not enough time and effort trying to make products safer for consumers. The industry needs to make safer products; the government isn’t going to do it for them. Setting more standards and regulations isn’t going to make poultry products safer. Let’s start by focusing our efforts on the serotypes of Salmonella and Campylobacter that actually make people sick and not the reduction of Salmonella serotypes that don’t make people sick.