NCC released the following statement Wednesday in response to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a pseudo-medical, vegan advocacy group, and its misleading claims about supermarket chicken, which were first reported in the New York Times.

“These findings, not a ‘peer reviewed’ study, are another misleading attempt by a pseudo-medical group to scare consumers in hopes of advancing their goal of a vegan society and to derail a USDA proposed rule to modernize the poultry inspection system,” said Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., NCC vice president of science and technology.

“Chicken processing plants strictly adhere to USDA’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy for visible fecal material as a food safety standard.  Through their Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs, chicken plants use a variety of measures to protect food from unintentional contamination and to reduce bacteria levels at these critical control points during the entire processing process.   In fact, when a product moves through the plant, bacteria levels are reduced many hundreds of times to a fraction of what was naturally on the bird when it arrived.

“The presence of generic E. coli is not a guaranteed indicator for fecal contamination, as suggested.  Most E. coli strains are completely harmless and these findings do not differentiate between those strains and the ones that can cause foodborne illness, like O157:H7. All E. coli strains are killed through proper cooking.

“It also is impossible to pinpoint the source of the E.coli as it is ubiquitous in nature, on animals and in humans.

“While we question the results of these findings and the motives of this group, their conclusion is disingenuous at best when looking at 57 questionable samples out of approximately 42 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken products in grocery stores on any given day.”

Other Experts Question Findings

Dirk Fillpot, of the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture, said the study’s findings were not supported by any science or facts. “It assumes that the presence of generic E. coli could only come from contact with feces, when that is simply not the case,” he said. “Additionally, the E. coli identified in the study is not a type that would make consumers ill.”

Dr. Catherine N. Cutter, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at Pennsylvania State University, said that it was impossible to know if the higher level of contamination came from the processing plants or developed as the chicken made its way into the grocery store or during testing.

“There are a lot of things that could come into play that could have caused the higher microbial loads they found,” Dr. Cutter said. “Without more information like slaughter dates and shelf life, it’s hard to make a determination about how or where the higher counts came from.”

If a package sat in a refrigerated case for two or three days, or spent more time on a loading dock than a processor had anticipated, low levels of E. coli bacteria could multiply, she said.

“The main thing,” Dr. Cutter said, “is that consumers properly handle a raw chicken and avoid cross contamination as much as possible and cook it thoroughly.”

The Penn State College of Agriculture Sciences also questioned the findings being advanced as a result in a blog post, “NY Times reports E. coli on Chicken…oh noooooo.”