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Fecal Contamination on Retail Chicken Products in the Buffalo, N.Y., Area

A Report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
November 2012

Feces contaminate 63 percent of retail chicken products in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, according to tests conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). So as Buffalo-area football fans consume countless wings while they watch the Buffalo Bills take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 2, they are likely to ingest fecal matter.

Buffalo chicken wings—widely consumed during football season—were invented in Buffalo, N.Y. An estimated 25 billion chicken wings will be sold this year across the United States, according to the National Chicken Council. Three billion will be sold in retail grocery stores as ready to cook (raw) or frozen.

In September 2012, PCRM dietitians collected chicken products sold by 10 Buffalo, N.Y., area retail outlets and sent them to a certified, independent analytical testing laboratory in Chicago, Ill. The lab tested for the presence of generic E. coli as evidence of fecal contamination. Chicken products from every store tested positive for fecal contamination. Overall, 63 percent of chicken samples tested positive. In addition to the testing, PCRM surveyed over 300 Buffalo residents to determine if they were aware that feces could be found on chicken products. Sixty-two percent of Buffalo residents did not know that feces are commonly found in store-bought chicken products.

Fecal Contamination of Chicken Products in 10 Buffalo-Area, N.Y. Stores
Store Location Chicken Products with Fecal Contamination
Dash’s Market Hertel Avenue, Buffalo 70%
Colvin Boulevard, Tonawanda 50%
PriceRite Walden Avenue, Cheektonaga 90%
Kenmore Avenue, Buffalo 70%
Save-A-Lot Broadway Street, Buffalo 60%
Genesee Street, Buffalo 40%
Target Delaware Avenue, Buffalo 80%
Walden Avenue, Cheektowaga 70%
TOPS Jefferson Avenue, Buffalo 70%
Seneca Street, Buffalo 30%

Background

In the conditions of typical poultry farms and transportation, chickens defecate on themselves and one another and commonly stand in feces. Feces are also present in intestines at the time of slaughter. As a result, feces are common in poultry farms, transport vehicles, and slaughter plants.

A typical large processing plant may slaughter more than 1 million birds per week.1 There, chickens are stunned, killed, bled, and sent through scalding tanks, which help remove feathers but also act as reservoirs that transfer feces from one carcass to another. After scalding, feathers and intestines are mechanically removed. Intestinal contents can spill onto machinery and contaminate the muscles and organs of the chicken and those processed afterward.

The eviscerated carcasses are then rinsed with chlorinated water and checked for visible fecal matter. However, some slaughter lines process as many as 140 birds per minute, allowing inspectors minimal time to examine each carcass for visible feces.2 The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently considering a plan to reduce the number of USDA inspectors and increase the line speed.

After the visual check for fecal matter, carcasses are typically chilled in ice water, effectively a communal bath in which the feces tend to mix together in what has been called “fecal soup,” which absorbs into the chicken meat. Industry experts coined the term “fecal soup” to describe the content of both the scalding and chilling tanks.

“You take a chicken that eats, sleeps, craps and everything in one little space, they enter the scald vat dirty, and it takes only a few minutes to become just brown fecal soup,” explains Stan Painter, chair of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the government meat inspectors’ union.3

A federal inspector said: “[I]f the fecal contamination is not touching the bird’s skin, it is not considered fecal contamination. We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination. If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line. It is more than reasonable to assume that once the bird gets into the chill tank (a large vat of cold water), that contamination will enter the water and contaminate all of the other carcasses in the chiller. That’s why it is sometimes called “fecal soup.”4

Carol Tucker Foreman, the former undersecretary of agriculture, described why chicken producers do not want to stop using the water bath system: “Chickens are very absorbent animals. When you put them into the water bath to chill them, they gain a little weight. Since chicken is sold by the pound, over a period of time it’s a substantial financial difference to the company. The average broiler is about four pounds. If you can add a quarter of a pound or an eighth of a pound in water pick-up, that’s very important to the economics of the industry.”5

After chilling, a chicken may be cut up, allowing for further fecal spread from carcass to implements. The remains are then packaged, carrying fecal bacteria to consumers. Feces consist of undigested food, dead cells, hepatically excreted compounds, parasites, and live bacteria, which may be benign or pathogenic. Feces on retail products are of concern to consumers for both esthetic and health reasons, but fecal traces are typically not visible.

To assess the efficacy of procedures to limit fecal contamination, the USDA requires poultry slaughter and processing establishments to test for levels of generic E. coli, a bacterium that is a highly specific indicator of fecal contamination. According to the USDA’s Guidelines for Escherichia coli Testing for Process Control Verification in Poultry Slaughter Establishments, facilities must test one chicken per 22,000 slaughtered or perform at least one test per week.6

Methods and Results

Fecal Contamination Testing

PCRM purchased chicken products—breasts, legs, thighs, and wings—from 10 stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. Ten packages of chicken were purchased in each store for a total of 100 samples.

Testing revealed that 63 percent of all chicken samples tested positive for feces. Among skinless breasts, 59 percent of products were contaminated, indicating that skin removal does not eliminate fecal contamination in the samples tested.

Although variability was evident from store to store, it appears that consumers bring feces into their kitchens on more than half of the retail chicken products purchased, regardless of the brand. This variability appears to be due to sampling, rather than to differences in procedures followed by different stores or brands.

Chicken Products Percent Tested Positive for Fecal Contamination
Breasts: skinless 59%
Breasts: overall 60%
Legs: overall  77%
Thighs: overall 75%
Wings: overall 60%

Retail chicken products are rarely tested for feces. Instead, testing is commonly performed during slaughter and processing to assess the effectiveness of practices intended to limit fecal spread. A 2009 USDA study found that 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for E. coli after chilling and just prior to packaging.7

The store chains sampled were Dash’s Market, PriceRite, Save-A-Lot, Target, and TOPS. Brands tested included Amick Farms, Amish Valley, Country Post, Dash's Market brand, Full Circle, Golden Plump, Halal, Market Pantry, Perdue, Save-A-Lot brand, Springer Mountain Farms, TOPS brand, and Tyson.

The products were purchased, and store packaging was left undisturbed. The packages were placed unopened in coolers with ice packs and immediately shipped overnight to EMSL Analytical Inc., a certified, independent analytical testing laboratory in Chicago, Ill. Using detection methods standard for food testing, EMSL tested for the presence of generic E. coli.8,9 As noted above, generic E. coli is a specific indicator of fecal contamination and is used by slaughter and processing plants to check for fecal contamination of food products and water, following USDA requirements.

Survey

After obtaining appropriate permissions though an ethical and independent review board, PCRM surveyed Buffalo-area residents at two locations: the 300-600 blocks of Main Street and the 600-1100 blocks of Elmwood Avenue. Passersby were asked if they were interested in participating in a food survey. The interviewer read questions and noted responses. One survey was filled out for each respondent.

Almost 1 in 5 respondents thought that chicken is a high-fiber food and nearly 20 percent were unsure. Chicken, like all animal products, contains no fiber.

Sixty-two percent of respondents did not know that feces are commonly found on retail chicken products.

Question Possible Answers Percent of Responses
Would you say chicken is a high-fiber food? Yes 18%
No 63%
Unsure 19%
Which of the following are commonly found in store bought chicken products? Traces of plastic 23%
Feathers 34%
Sand 5%
Feces 38%

Conclusion

Overall, more than half of the chicken samples purchased in the Buffalo, N.Y., area were contaminated with feces, which originate in chickens’ intestines, but are easily spread during rearing, transport, slaughter, and processing. Most Buffalo area residents did not know this. Feces carried on chicken products into the home are easily transferred to countertops, cutting boards, utensils, refrigerators, and family members.

While consumers are counseled by the USDA to apply high cooking heat to poultry products, this treatment simply cooks the feces along with the muscle tissue and does nothing to remove it from the ingested product.

References

1. Shane SM. Broiler welfare symposium: The balance between producers’ and consumers’ standards. World Poultry. Available at: http://www.worldpoultry.net/Broilers/Health/2010/7/Broiler-welfare-symposium-The-balance-between-producers-and-consumers-standards-WP007665W/. Accessed November 6, 2012.
2. Bilgili SF. Recent advances in electrical stunning. Poult Sci. 1999;78(2):282-286.
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection Plenary Session. February 6, 2008. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/NACMPI/Feb2008/Plenary_020608.pdf. Accessed November 13, 2012.
4. Written comment submitted by Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign, Government Accountability Project, to Food Safety Inspection Service, USDA, May 25, 2012. Available at: http://www.regulations.gov/contentStreamer?objectId=0900006481020a96&disposition=attachment&contentType=pdf. Accessed November 13, 2012.
5. Barnard ND. The Power of Your Plate: Eating Well for Better Health - 20 Experts Tell You How. Tennessee: Book Publishing Company; 1995.
6. Federal Register Announcement of July 8, 1996. Hum Gene Ther. 1996;7(15):1923-1926.
7. Altekruse SF, Berrang ME, Marks H, et al. Enumeration of Escherichia coli cells on chicken carcasses as a potential measure of microbial process control in a random selection of slaughter establishments in the United States. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2009;75(11):3522-3527.
8. Lattuada CP, Dillard LH, Rose BE. Examination of Fresh, Refrigerated, and Frozen Prepared Meat, Poultry and Pasteurized Egg products. In: Dey BP, Lattuada CP. Examination of Microbiology Laboratory Guidebook. Vol. 1-2. 3rd ed. Washington, DC. 1998.
9. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 3.01. Quantitative Analysis of Bacteria in Foods as Sanitary Indicators. Microbiology Laboratory Guidebook. January 20, 2011. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/MLG_3_01.pdf. Accessed November 2, 2012.



 
 

   
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