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Chicken is most likely to sicken people, CDC report on foodborne disease finds

Fish and dairy were the sources of the most foodborne disease outbreaks, but another food made the most people sick.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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We love it fried, roasted and grilled, but is chicken “the country’s most dangerous food”?

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently analyzed foodborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, the single food responsible for the most illnesses was chicken, sickening 3,114 people. Pork and seeded vegetables were next on the list. Improving the safety of those three foods should be a priority, the report, published last week, noted.

In all, there were 5,760 foodborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. involving 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths during that period, the CDC found. Fish and dairy were the sources of the most outbreaks, but chicken made the most people sick.

In response, the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America called chicken “the country’s most dangerous food.”

“This CDC report shows that government inspectors and industry need to do more to protect consumers from unsafe chicken,” said Thomas Gremillion, director the Food Policy Institute, in a statement.

But the National Chicken Council, the non-profit industry trade group, countered that the data in the report was three years old and predated the time when some chicken plants fully implemented a modernized poultry inspection system. Salmonella on chicken parts has been reduced in that time, it noted.

“Outside of maybe the nuclear energy industry, the U.S. meat and poultry industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States,” said spokesman Tom Super in a statement.

“Given that Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, the vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience.”

What makes chicken so potentially risky?

The birds can carry salmonella and Campylobacter — two of the most common bacterial causes of foodborne illness — and not show any signs of illness, said Craig Hedberg, a food safety expert and professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. That means the meat may be contaminated after the slaughter process, exposing the consumer who handles it to the bacteria. This is why you must wash your hands after handling raw chicken.

What are the biggest mistakes people make?

“There probably is undercooking of chicken going on because most people don’t cook with thermometers,” Hedberg told TODAY.

“But probably the thing that happens more often is that there is cross-contamination. You’re handling raw chicken and then you wind up handling something else that’s not going to get cooked and that’s what actually causes the illness.”

When it comes to ordering chicken in a restaurant, you should have an expectation that it’s properly cooked, Hedberg said. Restaurants have certified kitchen managers who can instruct workers on proper handling practices and then supervise them. Still, “there are lots of things that can potentially go wrong in commercial kitchens,” Hedberg noted.

How to stay safe:

The CDC offered these tips to avoid food poisoning from chicken:

  • Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling chicken.
  • Don’t wash raw chicken because its juices can splash around, contaminating your kitchen.
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken.
  • Never place other food on a plate or cutting board that previously held raw chicken. This is an important reminder for the summer grilling season when people may bring raw chicken out to the grill, then bring the cooked chicken back inside on the same plate, Hedberg said.
  • Use a food thermometer and cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F.
  • If you believe the chicken you ordered in a restaurant is undercooked, send it back.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftover chicken within two hours.

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