The chickens tested by Consumer Reports were purchased from grocery stores, bulk retailers, gourmet shops and natural food stores in 23 U.S. states. Both bacteria are known to cause diarrhea, cramping, fever, nausea and vomiting. They can even cause lethal infections in the elderly, babies and people with immune system impairment.
"If accurate, these findings are downright astonishing," said Mike Adams, author of "Grocery Warning," a book that details the health dangers of certain foods and food ingredients. "Consumers should be wary about unseen dangers in everyday groceries, and bacteria contamination is only the beginning. Many dangerous ingredients, such as sodium nitrite, are intentionally added by meat processors."
Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council said that the Consumer Report figures were "greatly exaggerated" and Richard Raymond of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the sample size was too small.
"That's 500 samples out of 9 billion chickens slaughtered a year," he said. He added that the report showed a salmonella rate of 15 percent, which jibes with USDA figures for 2005 showing a rate of 16.3 percent. However, 81 percent of the chickens tested by Consumer Reports had campylobacter infections, up from a 2003 test that found the bacteria in 42 percent of the test sample. Currently, the USDA does not test for campylobacter, but Raymond said the department was researching a testing protocol.
Jean Halloran of the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, said that federal regulation was "beyond overdue."
"They may criticize our testing methodology but they're not doing any testing at all," she said.
Earlier studies by the USDA and the FDA produced different results than the Consumer Reports test. In 2005, the USDA and National Chicken Council tested 4,200 broiler carcasses and found campylobacter in 26 percent, while the FDA found campylobacter in 60 percent of chicken breasts during a 2004 study. Each agency used a different testing method.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3.4 million Americans fall ill and 700 die due to salmonella and campylobacter from all sources, but the CDC notes that campylobacteriosis infections are down 30 percent since 1998 to 12.6 infections for every 100,000 people. Robert Tauxe of the CDC said soap, hot water, cooking or freezing easily destroys campylobacter.
"You leave salmonella out overnight on the counter and it grows. You leave campylobacter out and it dies," he said.