Foster Farms chicken rates low

LIVINGSTON -- A Consumer Reports study found Foster Farms chicken to be among the most contaminated birds in a nationwide test.

But Foster Farms claims their chicken is just as safe as any other company's.

Consumer Reports, a magazine published by Consumers Union, tested 382 chickens bought last spring from more than 100 supermarkets, gourmet and natural food stores in 22 states. The magazine had the birds tested by an outside laboratory.

A representative of Foster Farms, Ira Brill, said his company, based in Livingston, tests more than 6,000 birds a year -- a much larger sampling than Consumer Reports' -- and their findings are different.

The Consumer Reports article, to be published in the January 2010 issue, claims that Foster Farms chickens, along with Tyson chickens, were the most contaminated. The magazine tested for salmonella and campylobacter.

The article said fewer than 20 percent of Foster Farms chickens were free of either pathogen.

"There is no standard for testing for campylobacter," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. "The United States Department of Agriculture does not test for it, and it can be as deadly as salmonella."

Campylobacter bacteria, usually transmitted in contaminated food or water, can infect the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea, fever and cramps. It's found in the intestines of many wild and domestic animals. The bacteria are passed in their feces, which can lead to infection in humans via contaminated food and meats (especially chicken).

More than 80 percent of Foster Farms chickens tested by Consumer Reports tested positive for one or the other of the pathogens.

Brill said Foster Farms' testing shows a much lower percentage. "Our testing is monitored by the USDA," Brill said. "Our incidence level is less than 5 percent for salmonella."

Halloran said the reason the findings are so different is because when the USDA visits a chicken plant, the plant knows it's being tested.

"The USDA does 50 samples on 50 consecutive days," Halloran said. "Of course, the company knows the USDA is testing, and they try like heck to pass."

Halloran said the USDA has said it's working on standards to test facilities for campylobacter, but "they have been saying that literally for years," she said.

If chicken companies work hard enough, Halloran said, they all can achieve a better rating than even the best companies.

"Even the best brands had 40 percent of their chickens contaminated," Halloran said. "The industry should be figuring out the best practices and follow them and not wait for the USDA to make them do it."

Brill said the bottom line is that consumers must be careful when handling chicken.

"If you follow proper handling and properly cook the chicken, the bacteria is eradicated," Brill said. "This report reminds us to properly handle chicken and cook it. That's in the best public interest."