A study by researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute sought to answer that question. Their report, released in late April, identified the top 10 riskiest combinations of food and disease-causing organisms.
The winner, or actually, the loser? A microorganism called campylobacter, which is linked with poultry and costs an estimated $1.3 billion a year in hospitalization and other medical costs.
Poultry causes more food-borne disease than any other type of food, the report says. Primarily because of campylobacter and salmonella, contaminated poultry is responsible for $2.4 billion in costs associated with illness.
According to press reports, Michael Batz, the report’s lead author and director of the institute’s food safety programs, said its purpose was not to scare people, nor to attack the poultry industry. It was designed more as a guide for Food and Drug Administration regulators and other agencies to adopt a more preventive approach.
Americans consume an average of more than 80 pounds of chicken per year, up from 60 pounds in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beef consumption has been declining and is about 57 pounds per capita a year.
The National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C., said that over the years as companies continue to invest in safer standards, the presence of potentially pathogenic microorganisms on raw chicken has been greatly reduced.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has had microbiological standards in effect since 1998,” the council stated in a release. “According to USDA sampling, the microbiological profile of fresh chicken meat is the best that it has ever been.
“Consumers should continue to follow the simple, common-sense food safety precautions printed on every package of raw meat and poultry sold in the United States, especially since the heat of normal cooking kills microorganisms such as salmonella and campylobacter.”
Their advice is basically: Cook chicken thoroughly.
Batz agrees that people should take every food safety precaution they can in their kitchens, but points out that 50 percent of meals are prepared in restaurants and other professional kitchens. At home, the issue could be cross-contamination from a cutting board or knife, not insufficient cooking temperatures.
“These are bacteria you cannot see. There are a lot of things you can accidentally do to spread these bugs around your house. There is a lot of inconsistent advice for consumers. For example, you still hear people suggest that people should wash chicken. Water hitting chicken spreads tiny particles around,” Batz said.
“People will say that food safety is simple, and it is not. It would not be a field of study if it were simple.”