Organic chickens are three times more likely than conventionally-bred poultry to be contaminated with a bacterium that causes food-poisoning. A team at the Danish Veterinary Laboratory found that all 22 organic flocks they investigated were infected with Campylobacter ? one of the most common causes of food poisoning. Only one third of 79 conventional chickens were infected.
?The organic movement is sound, but this is unwelcome news,? says Karl Pedersen, who supervised the project. The result is not entirely surprising, since organic birds are allowed to roam outside and are more likely to be exposed to food and water contaminated with infected feces from wild animals. ?But it turns out that the difference was far higher than we expected,? he says.
Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, says he was also not surprised by the results. ?We?re starting to see some of the organic myths about food safety debunked,? he says.
Patrick Holden, director of the U.K. Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, says, ?We will look at the research in more detail, but it is possible that antibiotics used in the non-organic poultry cases have suppressed the detection of infection. By contrast organic farming prohibits the routine use of antibiotics.? It takes just 10 to 50 bacteria to pass on the infection, and feces can contain a billion bacteria per gram. ?The amount in feces is extremely high, so one bird can infect many others,? Pedersen says.
Conventionally-bred birds are slaughtered after around 38 days, while organic birds live twice as long, and so are more likely to pick up infections. On most poultry farms, farmers grow and slaughter all their chickens at the same time, so empty chicken coops can be thoroughly disinfected before the next batch of day-old chicks arrives.
In a recent survey, Britain?s Food Standards Agency found that half of all chickens sampled were contaminated with campylobacter. The bacteria will not survive cooking, but could spread to other food items if contaminated carcasses are not handled carefully in the kitchen.
A natural way to solve this problem might be to add chili to chickens while they are still alive, according to researchers in the U.S. In an effort to fight the notorious food-poisoning bacterium Salmonella, Audrey McElroy of Virginia Tech University fed chickens with capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili its bite.
The birds were then dosed with Salmonella enteritidis . The hot spices reduced the number of birds with the germs in their internal organs by almost half compared to a normally-fed group. Fortunately, the chili flavor did not end up in the meat.
Research suggests that the fiery taste of chili peppers discourages creatures from eating them who are poor at dispersing the plant?s seeds. This does not include birds. ?Birds appear not to have the receptors to the hot pungent part of the peppers,? says McElroy. ?It appears not to affect them in any way.?
The chickens did get inflamed intestines, however, and this is the main clue to how the spice might be working. ?Is it causing just a mild influx of immune cells that allows the bird to fight off the infection, or does it change the binding sites so the Salmonella passes through the birds?? McElroy wonders.
There is evidence that feeding antibiotics to chickens leads to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. McElroy believes that her findings are important because of the push to get rid of antibiotics in poultry.
But U.K. Soil Association spokesman Richard Young worries that killing off one set of bugs could make way for another. ?One would want to be convinced that in using a product like this to reduce Salmonella they?re not simply leaving the way open for other food poisoning bacteria.?
Opinion: This assumes that the antibiotics and other additives in factory-raised chicken are safe. Uh-huh.
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