The Five Worst Contaminants in Chicken Products

The Physicians Committee

The Five Worst Contaminants in Chicken Products

Americans eat a staggering 84 pounds of chicken per person a year.1 But nutrition experts with the Physicians Committee warn that most consumers are unaware that feces, toxic chemicals, superbugs, carcinogens, and cholesterol are likely hiding in every bite they eat.

More than 8 billion chickens are slaughtered in the United States each year.2 But instead of tightening inspection procedures, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to unveil a new poultry-inspection policy this summer that could endanger consumers’ health.3

The new guidelines decrease the number of federal inspectors on inspection lines from four to one, increase the number of chickens inspected from 140 to 175 per minute, and call for toxins such as chlorine to treat chicken for contaminants.3

In addition to contaminants related to processing, chicken products naturally contain carcinogens triggered through cooking and nearly as much cholesterol as red meat.

The Five Worst Contaminants in Chicken Products
Contaminant Shocker
1. Feces Chickens can soak in “fecal soup” for up to an hour before being packaged for consumers.
2. Toxic Chemicals Peracetic acid and chlorine are both commonly used to treat chicken for contaminants in poultry plants.
3. Superbugs Nearly 75 percent of bacterially tainted chicken products harbor germs resistant to one or more types of antibiotics.
4. Carcinogens Arsenic in chicken could lead to increased risk of lung and bladder cancer deaths.
5. Cholesterol Both 4 ounces of beef and 4 ounces of chicken contain approximately 100 milligrams of cholesterol.


Poultry Slaughter Procedures, a USDA training video recently obtained by the Physicians Committee through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the chicken slaughtering process ends with carcasses soaking in cold water—“fecal soup”—for up to one hour before being packaged for consumers.2

Large chicken processing plants, such as Tyson and Perdue, can slaughter as many as 30,000 chickens an hour.2 During processing, chicken carcasses are mechanically disemboweled and later soaked in a chill tank before being packaged and sent to distributors.

A federal inspector said, “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, 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.’”

In 2012, the Physicians Committee tested chicken products sold by 15 grocery store chains in 10 U.S. cities for the presence of fecal bacteria. 48 percent of chicken samples tested positive.4

Applying high cooking heat to poultry products does not remove the feces, it merely cooks it along with the muscle tissue.
In March 2013, the Physicians Committee submitted a legal petition requesting that USDA declare and regulate feces as an adulterant, require that poultry product labels uniformly disclose the presence of feces, and remove the word “wholesome” from the official inspection legend for poultry products.

Toxic Chemicals

Chlorine and peracetic acid are used to treat chicken at the processing plant where a federal poultry inspector died after coughing up blood and his lungs and kidneys failed.5 Both are toxic chemicals known to cause lung damage, among other health hazards. USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees across the nation have also suffered from asthma, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus problems that they attribute to chemical exposure.5

Use of these toxins and other antimicrobials to treat chicken contaminants will increase because of the pending poultry-inspection guidelines that state “all carcasses would remain on the line to be treated with the on-line anti-microbial agent.”6 In other words, all poultry products would be doused with an agent such as trisodium phosphate, chlorinated water, or acidified sodium chlorite prior to reaching consumers.6

In April 2013, the Physicians Committee added an addendum to its USDA petition to cover these toxins: “If USDA will not condemn all fecally contaminated products, then, at a minimum, it must inform consumers what they are eating.”


The Food and Drug Administration recently found that 74 percent of bacterially tainted chicken products harbored germs that were resistant to one or more types of antibiotics. The report also noted that 30.3 million pounds of antibiotics were sold and used in livestock feed in 2011, a 2.1 percent increase from 2010.7

A 2013 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) declared chicken as the most unsafe meat in terms of bacterial content. CSPI researchers examined 12 years of CDC data and determined that more reported foodborne illness outbreaks were linked to chicken than any other meat or poultry product.8

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Food Safety Progress Report shows that foodborne illnesses from bacteria found in chicken are on the rise. Campylobacter has seen a 14 percent increase, and for every reported case, there are an estimated 30 additional cases that are undiagnosed.9 For each reported Salmonella case, there are 29 undiagnosed cases. Both salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis can cause fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and potentially result in a serious life-threatening condition.


A new study from Johns Hopkins University found levels of inorganic arsenic in chicken two to three times higher than the FDA suggests might be safe. Arsenic is used in chicken feed to kill intestinal parasites, promote growth, and make meat look pinker. There is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed, but Maryland is the first state to ban most arsenicals in chicken feed. Consuming inorganic arsenic leads to increased risk of lung and bladder cancer.10

Carcinogens also occur naturally in chicken. In a Physicians Committee study compiled from independent laboratory tests, 100 percent of 100 grilled chicken samples from top restaurant chains in California contained PhIP, a federally recognized carcinogen that has been linked to breast, prostate, and other cancers.11 PhIP forms naturally from substances found in tissue when the tissue is exposed to direct high heat.

In California, Proposition 65 requires all food outlets to display warnings related to carcinogens in their products. In 2008, the Physicians Committee filed a lawsuit that would compel fast food chains to post this notice regarding their grilled chicken items. Burger King settled and agreed to display the appropriate warnings in their California locations.


Chicken contains nearly as much cholesterol as red meat. Four ounces of beef and 4 ounces of chicken both contain approximately 100 milligrams of artery-clogging cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease.

In addition to dietary cholesterol, typical chicken servings are about 50 percent fat, and 30 percent of that is saturated or “unhealthy” fat, which stimulates the body’s production of cholesterol.

Chicken contains no fiber, a substance that can naturally lower cholesterol and remove toxins and hormones from the body that can help prevent certain types of cancer.

What Should the Government and Industry Do?

The USDA should require chicken producers and distributors to label packages to inform consumers that they are likely eating feces and other contaminants. The Physicians Committee’s March 2013 legal petition to the USDA requests that feces be declared an adulterant and that packaging be labeled appropriately.

Sample warning label

The fast-food industry can help customers avoid chicken’s contaminants, cholesterol, and carcinogens by displaying warnings and offering customers healthful alternatives. Chipotle is currently testing a new tofu-based option in California.12

What Can Consumers Do?

The safest choice is to avoid purchasing, ingesting, or handling chicken products. A plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is naturally free of cholesterol and loaded with fiber and protein.


1. Broiler Chicken Industry Key Facts. National Chicken Council. Accessed May 15, 2013.
2. Tom McDougal. Poultry Slaughter Procedures. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service Office of Field Operations; 1998.
3. Philpott T. USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy. Mother Jones. April 24, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013.
4. Fecal Contamination in Retail Chicken Products. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Accessed May 15, 2013.
5. Kindy K. At chicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferate. The Washington Post. April 25, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013.
6. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection. Published January 27, 2012. Accessed May 15, 2013.
7. Telesca J. A Closer Look at the FDA Antibiotic Retail Meat Report. Supermarket News. March 28, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013.
8. Risky Meat: A CSPI Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Accessed May 15, 2013.
9. Trends in Foodborne Illness in the United States, 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed May 15, 2013.
10. Poultry Drug Increases Levels of Toxic Arsenic in Chicken Meat. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Accessed May 15, 2013.
11. Sullivan KM, Erickson MA, Sandusky CB, Barnard ND. Detection of PhIP in grilled chicken entrées at popular chain restaurants throughout California. Nutr Cancer. 2008;60:592-602.
12. Lindelof B. Chipotle adds veggie Sofritas to its menu. The Sacramento Bee. April 10, 2013.

Physicians Committee's Feces Warning Label USDA

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