A searingly negative article published in this month's Consumer Reports magazine, describing the levels of disease-causing pathogens found in fresh supermarket chicken, has so far not affected poultry sales at stores, or raised food-safety concerns among shoppers, according to retail and industry sources interviewed by SN.
Officials from the Food Marketing Institute and the National Broiler Council, both based in Washington, reported that their members' chicken sales had been unaffected by the article, which was entitled "Chicken: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You."
The article was based on microbiological testing of 1,000 whole chickens bought in supermarkets in 36 cities over a five-week period. The tests included major brands, seven supermarket brands and specialty "premium" brands.
The article reported that testing showed the presence of either campylobacter or salmonella, and sometimes both, in 71% of the chickens. It also reported that the "premium" chickens from expensive, small brand manufacturers and free-range producers were most contaminated.
None of the retailers interviewed by SN reported noted a higher than usual level of customer concerns about poultry safety, since the publication of the March issue of Consumer Reports, which contained the article.
"I don't think it has impacted us at all," said one retailer, Jeff Voltz, the general manager of the Puget Consumers Co-op, Seattle, about the article.
"We have had a 12% increase in chicken sales in the past 30 days," said Paul Heimel, the meat department manager at the Wedge Community Co-op, Minneapolis.
Ron Kersker, a meatcutter at biggs Hyper Shoppes, Cincinnati, said that none of his customers had "been asking any more questions than usual."
Al Kober, the meat buyer and merchandiser for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., said he believed consumers were generally aware of the dangers of raw product, and "are more educated than the mass media gives them credit for."
Richard Lobb, the NBC's spokesman, said that the poultry trade group's members have had "little or no response from their customers. The public seems to have gotten wise to these scare stories."
He said that annual per capita chicken consumption is around 75 pounds a year, and that the industry does not expect the article's publication is to change that level of consumption.
The percentages of chicken showing the presence of campylobacter as documented by Consumer Reports were in line with averages reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, which range from 50% up to 88%, according to Penny Adcock, a CDC medical epidemiologist.
However, despite the fact that Consumer Reports' findings were consistent with CDC's figures, retailers still questioned the article's statistical validity. Voltz from Puget Consumers Co-op, for example, noted the story failed to provide essential information on topics such as temperature control during shipping and the exact levels of contamination that were detected.
Retailers and industry officials added that the presence of high levels of bacteria on fresh agricultural products was to be expected.
"These are naturally occurring bacteria and there's no way you are going to have risk-free animal protein," said Karen Brown, a senior vice president at the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute.
"Fresh chicken is a natural product," said Randy Boyce, the president of Foster Farms, Livingston, Ca., a producer whose products were included in the test sample, "and like all real, fresh food, chicken may carry natural bacteria that may be harmful to humans." However, not all the sources SN interviewed said they considered the poultry bacteria levels reported by Consumer Reports acceptable.
Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, New York, said the article indicated the presence of "way too much bacteria. We have to be doing a better job in the processing plants, to stop this before it gets out into the marketplace."
The Consumer Reports article also cited CDC figures showing a three-fold increase in the number of cases of foodborne illness linked to chicken between 1988 and 1992.
Lobb pointed out that there is a difference between outbreaks and individual cases of illness. Seven foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to chicken were reported by the CDC in both 1988 and 1992, while 130 and 535 individual cases were reported to have been caused by those outbreaks respectively in 1988 and 1992.
The NBC's Lobb said the difference of 405 in the number of cases between the two years was probably caused by "the amount of people you invite to a picnic." He said that, judging from these statistics, "You can't make the case that the picture is getting worse with chicken."
The NBC's technical adviser, Kenneth May, said in a statement that the consumer group tried to use the CDC statistics to back its claim that "outbreaks from foodborne illness from chicken are getting more prevalent, when in fact they are not." May said that "Consumer Reports is playing statistical games to make the picture look worse than it is."
CDC's Adcock, however, called the growing number of cases of foodborne illness related to poultry significant, and "a better reflection of what's going on" than the number of outbreaks.
"If you just look at the number of outbreaks, it's very misleading," she said. "Overall, it looks like a definite trend to an increase in the number of cases."
Regardless of how many chickens being sold in supermarkets might be contaminated by salmonella or campylobacter, much of the battle against foodborne bacteria can be effectively won by properly cooking the birds, said most sources interviewed by SN.
"Harmful bacteria can be destroyed by the heat of proper cooking, so consumers should always follow handling and cooking advice printed on packages of poultry," said Foster Farms' Boyce.
"If you handle and cook it properly, you don't have a problem," commented Suann Suggs, a general manager at Norman Bros. Produce, a fresh foods retailer in Miami, Florida. "In this country, we tend to think that the government should make a law and take care of things, when we have to be responsible consumers and handle things properly."
Many retailers also described their efforts to educate customers about the importance of proper handling. "We have an extensive education program on the case about cooking times and juices," said Heimel of the Wedge Community Co-op.
Gary Hanna, an assistant meat manager at West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, echoed the efforts of many retailers when he said, "We have safe handling stickers that we provide with our products. I think the big problem is handling at home."
Kersker of the supercenter operator biggs Hyper Shoppes agreed. "It all comes down to people handling it properly," he said.
Consumer advocate Donley of Safe Tables Our Priority added that although proper cooking can eliminate much of the bacteria, she believed the greater concern was the cross contamination that occurs at home.
Still, she urged retailers to go to the root of contamination, by "Putting pressure on their suppliers, finding out what kind of microbiological testing they are doing and setting standards."
Vivian Bluhm, a senior buyer for Fairway Foods, Northfield, Minn., said that a variety of efforts to improve sanitation at plants are already under way and are likely to improve results. "With all the HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] standards in place and with manufacturers going to more HACCP, you'll see the incidence of disease go down."