chickensFood safety regulators said Wednesday they want food processors to begin phasing out the use of antibiotics that are fed to animals and believed harmful to humans.

The Food and Drug Administration hopes the move will cut down on the development of antimicrobial resistance in both humans and animals, helping to protect against potentially fatal illnesses caused by drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

When you spend extra money on organic chicken, you’d like to think you’re getting something that’s cleaner and healthier than the factory-farmed stuff in the next bin over. But that’s not always the case, thanks to a chicken production system that doesn’t discriminate when it comes to bacteria.

A new study has just revealed that organic chicken can be just as contaminated with some forms of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as conventional, and much of that is all thanks to what happens post-harvest, when your chicken moves from the farm to the store.

10 Facts About Your Chicken

The intent of the study, which was published in the journal F1000 Research, was to find out whether levels of E. coli differed among conventionally raised chicken and chicken labeled organic, raised without antibiotics, or kosher. And the researchers weren’t looking just for E. coli, but specifically for antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria, which don’t respond to many of the human medicines designed to kill them. What they found was disturbing: Kosher chickens tested had the highest levels of antibiotic-resistant E. coli, at 76 percent, while 58 and 60 percent of “raised without antibiotics” and certified-organic samples harbored the harmful bacteria. Ironically, the authors detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria on just 55 percent of conventional samples — the lowest amount of all three types.

Admittedly, the sample size was small, the authors write. They collected just 184 samples and only from grocery stores in the New York City area for a period of three months, which makes their results hard to generalize to the country as a whole. Similar analyses that have been conducted in the past involved much larger sample sizes that were collected from more states and over longer time periods.

When it Pays to Buy Organic

The premium you pay for organic produce is high. With money so tight, Consumer Reports tells you which organic fruits and vegetables are your best choices.

But the results point to systemic problems with chicken production in America, says Keeve Nachman, PhD, program director of the Food Production & Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. “It’s a long continuum from the production of an animal to what you pick up at the store,” he says, “and, there are a lot of opportunities for cross-contamination.”

Among those…

  • Chicken processors typically handle all types of chicken. While U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that processors that handle both organic and nonorganic chickens prevent “commingling,” they don’t require chicken production facilities to handle only organic or only conventional birds. “After poultry processors handle conventional chickens, the facility has to be cleaned prior to production of organic chicken,” Nachman says, but if the facility isn’t cleaned well, there are lots of chances for your organic chicken to wind up with nonorganic bugs.
  • Bacteria don’t stay put on one farm. This is a big problem, Nachman says. “An organic chicken farm may be near or next to a farm producing conventionally raised birds,” he adds. Bacteria can easily blow from one farm to another, and studies from his center have even found that they can be carried from farm to farm by insects, infecting organic birds with bacteria that didn’t come from overdoses of antibiotics (as they can with conventionally raised birds). Perhaps, even more disturbingly, Johns Hopkins researchers have found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can travel on livestock-transport vehicles and blow onto passing cars — or passing trucks carrying organic chickens.
  • Organic chickens are organic from Day 2.Conventionally raised chickens receive regular doses of antibiotics in their feed, which is what public health researchers like Nachman believe is driving the huge proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria both on farms and in people. But even organic birds, which are required by regulations to be raised without antibiotics, receive the drugs, thanks to a stipulation in the organic guidelines that chickens be raised organically from “the second day of life.” That means that, as with conventionally raised birds, organic chickens can receive antibiotics while in the shell and on the first day after they hatch (viewed as a precautionary measure) and still be considered and sold as organic. In fact, the study found that about 10 percent of the E. coli strains found on both organic and nonorganic samples were resistant to gentamicin, which is believed to be the most commonly used antibiotic in eggs and newborn chickens.

Tough-to-Kill Germs Found in Your Chicken

But this shouldn’t deter you from buying organic chicken, Nachman says. “The reassuring thing is that there’s quite a bit that consumers can do to mitigate concerns to being exposed to resistant bacteria,” he says. First among them: Always cook your chicken (no matter what kind) to an internal temperature of 165°F. And keep raw chicken separate from raw vegetables and other foods you don’t intend to cook.

“Organic and antibiotic-free chickens are still better for surrounding communities,” he says, “and studies like this can distract from the hazards that conventional farms really pose.”

Here are a few of the benefits of buying (and thoroughly cooking) organic chicken:

  • Healthier people. Nachman has conducted studies showing that living near a livestock operation greatly increases a person’s of contracting MRSA, which can be deadly. Supporting farming practices that avoid drugs means that these infection rates could lessen over time.
  • Healthier water. Factory farms sell animal waste — which contains high levels of metals and pharmaceutical residues — to farms of all types to use as fertilizer. Once applied, it runs off into streams, polluting waterways and even drinking water supplies. Organic livestock producers also sell their waste, but since the animals weren’t dosed with pharmaceuticals or feed containing arsenic (a heavy metal used in conventional chicken feed), the animals’ waste isn’t contaminated.
  • Fewer GMOs. Chickens that live out on pasture get to dine on bugs, grasses, and other natural fare, but many farmers still need to supplement that diet with corn or soy; roughly 90 percent of both crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified (GMO). So going the extra step to find an organic chicken producer, who to qualify as organic is prohibited from using feed with GMO ingredients, means that you’re keeping these crops — which require excessive levels of toxic pesticides — out of the food system.

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