I've known for a long time that chicken can be toxic, but an April article in the New York Times showed that almost half of the chicken in grocery stores is contaminated by E coli, which researchers say is an indicator of fecal contamination. In other words, there is poop in our chicken meat! Just to be clear, E coli comes from colons... So that means the bacteria either came from a human colon, or more likely chicken colon(s).
The study indicates that millions of Americans are exposing themselves not just to the bacteria from a chicken's intestinal tract, but to everything else that comes in chicken feces. So it makes sense that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends extreme caution and care when handling raw chicken, which includes meticulously cleaning and sterilizing kitchen surfaces that are exposed to the meat.
And WebMD makes it clear what we're risking: E. Coli O157:H7 will cause most people to suffer cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Some people won't notice symptoms, but will spread the disease to loved ones. Others will experience "severe blood and kidney problems," which can lead to death for those with compromised immune systems.
I've often wondered why we would want to eat something that is so potentially toxic in the first place.
Anyway, I Tweeted the article, to huge response. Lots of people are appropriately appalled that there is poop in their chicken. Then I got two replies from @chickencouncil -- the Twitter account of the National Chicken Council (NCC) -- defending the meat; here's what they said:
@kathyfreston To clarify, E. coli presence in chicken is NOT a guaranteed indicator of fecal contamination. Most strains are harmless.
@kathyfreston We understand E. coli can sound alarming but we hope we are able to reassure you about chicken's safety.
So I decided to go to the study's source and ask Dr. Neal Barnard, president and founder of Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, for an explanation. Here's how our conversation went:
KF: So is the E. coli from chicken poop or isn't it?
NB: First, the testing criteria PCRM used are the same that the USDA uses to assess fecal contamination on chickens. This E. coli testing reflects fecal contamination, and these E. coli are highly unlikely to have come from any other source. Fecal contamination on chicken meat is surprisingly common and also extremely variable. USDA requires chicken producers to inspect only one in every 22,000 carcasses, so consumers really have no way to know what they are buying and eating. We found that this sort of contamination is very, very common. If you eat chicken, you are eating chicken feces much of the time.
KF: Fecal contamination is poop, yes? Does that make us sick if we touch it or eat it? The NCC says we shouldn't be alarmed.
NB: PCRM was not necessarily suggesting that these E. coli strains cause disease. Rather, they are a sign of feces on or in the meat. We wanted people to understand that, when they buy chicken, they are buying, chewing, and swallowing feces in about half the cases.
KF: Dare I ask, can there be anything worse than E. coli in our meat?
NB: Well, yes. You're eating dung. Chicken feces may also contain roundworms, hair worms, tapeworms, insect larvae, fecally-excreted drugs and other chemicals, as well as the more normal constituents of feces -- bile, undigested food, etc.
KF: That's pretty gross. Is there a way around this, like shopping at better stores, or buying organic?
NB: USDA does not report contamination at the local level or store-by-store. Consumers might imagine that their favorite store or brand is hygienic and safe, or that "organic" or skinless products are safer. PCRM's test results indicate these assumptions have no basis. The so-called "organic" brands were tainted with feces, too, and skinless chicken breast was slightly worse than skin-on brands. Fecal soiling occurs in all brands and all stores at surprisingly high levels.
KF: But the NCC says most strains of E.coli are harmless; is that the case? If someone is exposed but doesn't develop any symptoms, are they in the clear and can assume that the maybe contaminated chicken didn't do any harm?
NB: First of all, I should say that we have been trying for years to help consumers understand that chicken cholesterol and fat are in far higher quantities than most people appreciate. And if it's the feces that finally convince people to stop eating it, that's all to the good.
As to the health effects of fecal bacteria, people may not even realize they are being affected. Some of the problems caused by fecal contamination are quite unexpected, as evidenced by this recent report, which suggested that chicken feces are a primary reservoir for the pathogens causing common urinary tract infections:
What we are getting at is that if you buy chicken and bring it into your home, you can easily contaminate your hands, knives, cutting boards, and kitchen surfaces and very soon you end up infecting yourself with these persistent germs.
KF: Can you please explain how the poop got in and on the chicken in the first place?
NB: Chickens are typically raised in crowded conditions, so it is easy for feces to spread from one bird to the next. In the transport boxes that carry them to the slaughterhouse, they spread feces even more. And in the slaughter line, the intestinal tract is mechanically ripped out of the body. It is asking quite a lot to not have chicken dung splattering around, contaminating the equipment, the workers' hands, and everything else.
And then, right after slaughter, there's the water bath. In my book, The Power of Your Plate, I included an interview with Carol Tucker Foreman, the former Undersecretary of Agriculture. She describes contamination in chickens in some detail, but the part about the water bath is particularly eye-opening:
"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. This "water" that Ms. Foreman was referring to is the chill bath they go into after eviscerated. It is sometimes referred to as "fecal soup."
KF: So, in layman's terms, the chickens are dipped in water that is full of poop? And the poop is in the water because when the chickens are disemboweled, it lands in the very water that's supposed to clean them? And that poopy water is absorbed into their flesh?
NB: Cheerful, isn't it? And that is why slaughterhouses will not let you look at their operation. You can tour a strawberry patch or a bread factory, but the chicken industry is based on the assumption that you will never see what happened to the bird you are eating. You would have a very hard time stomaching it.
KF: Got it. A black bean burrito or some veggie sausage is sounding really good right about now!
NB: Here's the point: chicken adds cholesterol, fat, and other undesirables to the diet. Consumers seem to be inured to those problems, and if the understanding that they are eating cooked feces in about half the chickens they buy is a bit off-putting, then that will help them make healthier choices.