Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
"[A] 2009 USDA study found that 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for generic E. coli ... just prior to packaging."

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on Thursday, March 14th, 2013 in a letter

Does chicken claim pass inspection?

Poultry inspector Hamilton Cook inspects chickens at the White Oak Pastures processing plant in Bluffton, Ga. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine wants better poultry inspection to prevent fecal contamination. Photo by Brant Sanderlin/AJC

Before you finish eating that piece of chicken, you may want to read this article.

A recent letter to a Georgia congressman made the birds sound downright unappetizing.

"[A] 2009 USDA study found that 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for generic E. coli, a sign of fecal contamination, just prior to packaging," the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine wrote.

The letter was sent to U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from southwest Georgia who is co-chairman of the Congressional Chicken Caucus. Yes, there is a Congressional Chicken Caucus.

The Washington-based PCRM wants more rigid chicken inspections after the birds have been defeathered and before they hit supermarket shelves. The letter made news in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets.

PolitiFact Georgia wondered whether the physician’s committee was correct or if it ran afoul of the facts about contaminated chicken.

The PCRM is a nonprofit organization claiming 150,000 members that promotes a vegetable-based diet, preventive medicine and alternatives to animal research. The poultry industry dismissed its criticism.

"This petition is the latest misleading attempt by a vegan advocacy group to scare consumers in hopes of advancing their goal of a meat-free society," Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, told the AJC.

E. coli are bacteria found in the droppings and intestinal systems of some animals, particularly cattle, goats and sheep. Federal officials and food safety experts say the overwhelming bulk of chicken with high levels of E. coli is caught before it reaches the grocery store or restaurant. Most outbreaks in the United States have been associated with raw or undercooked food, even cookie dough.

An estimated 100 Americans die each year from E. coli infections, primarily from a strain typically found in beef called O157:H7. Generic E. coli found in chicken carcasses are less dangerous and "not the type to make you sick," said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.

Georgia may be called the Peach State, but it is also the Poultry State. Georgia produces more chickens for meat consumption -- 1.3 billion a year -- than any other state, the AJC said last year in an investigative report on food inspection.


The AJC reported that federal inspectors would have one-third of a second to examine slaughtered chickens for contaminants under new rules proposed by the federal government. The USDA is still reviewing the changes, an agency spokeswoman said.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer food safety group, described the inspection process is "antiquated." DeWaal and Doyle also want better testing for salmonella and campylobacter, bacteria that may have a greater likelihood to cause food poisoning. The PCRM, through the letter to Bishop and his caucus co-chairman, is hoping to put pressure on Congress to prod the USDA to improve its inspection process.

"For whatever reason, the USDA knows what’s going on, but it’s not doing anything," said the PCRM’s Mark Kennedy, who wrote the letter.

USDA officials counter that they used data from this and other studies conducted about the same time to make several improvements to poultry inspections since 2006, such as the agency tightening performance standards for poultry establishments.

The PCRM has tried publicity campaigns before. Last year -- of all things! -- it warned Buffalo Bills football fans to stay away from Buffalo wings. Critics say the PCRM is truly a vegan group, has very few doctors in its membership and exaggerates the harm of meats while not focusing on the potential dangers of bacteria in vegetables. Its president, Neal Barnard, was quoted as saying chicken is "wrongly promoted as a healthful (food) choice" and that it carries "its load of fat and cholesterol."  

Fecal contamination can land on chicken feathers while they are transported, since the animals are kept in close quarters. Chickens are cleaned during the defeathering process, but some fecal contamination can still remain.

Inspectors are charged with removing any chicken from the assembly line if they see contamination or signs of disease or infection. A few times a month, other inspectors take small samples of birds and mail them to federal labs, where they are tested for bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service researchers completed a report on E. coli in chicken that was released in April 2009. The report found 691 of 798 chickens studied tested positive for E. coli, which is 87 percent. The chicken came from 20 large slaughterhouses, and the research was done in 2005.

In 2012, the PCRM conducted its own study of chicken from 15 grocery stores chains in 10 major cities. The study found that 48 percent of the chicken samples tested positive for fecal contamination. The National Chicken Council attacked the study, saying the sample study was too small and was not peer-reviewed.

UGA’s Doyle said the more important number when it comes to E. coli testing is the amount per gram, not its mere existence. Higher concentrations of E. coli, he said, can lead to food poisoning. Doyle said the number of E. coli per gram has declined significantly in recent years.

"The counts have gone way down," he said.

Our conclusion:

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as part of a campaign to reduce fecal contamination in the nation’s food supply, claimed that a 2009 USDA study found 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for generic E. coli just prior to packaging.

The organization’s claim is based on accurate data. But we believe there’s substantial context missing. Experts say  the amount of E. coli in chicken per gram has declined in recent years, a major improvement in food safety.

Also, the USDA study cited by the committee represents a very small sample of the billions of chicken processed each year in the U.S. It’s difficult to draw broad conclusion from such a small sample. We rate the group’s statement Half True.