Fears that the infectious prion proteins that cause Mad Cow Disease could be present in chicken fillets have been raised after bovine (cow) protein was found in breast fillets tested by the Irish Food Safety Authority (FSAI). The tests were done after a report by the U.K. Food Standards Agency warned that pig proteins had been used to increase the weight of chicken from Holland and Belgium. DNA tests on 30 chicken samples revealed that 17 contained bovine DNA, porcine (pig) DNA or both.
Peter Smith, chairman of SEAC, the English advisory body on BSE and its human form vCJD, says, “If the source of the bovine material was fit for human consumption under EU regulations, then these findings pose no significant health risk. The problem is we don’t know.”
It?s not illegal to feed meat to chickens, provided the information is on the label of the meat. Protein additives are extracted from old animals, which are not suitable for sale as meat, or from body parts such as skin, bones and ligaments. But this process does not destroy prions, the infectious proteins that cause BSE. Wayne Anderson, chief food scientist at FSAI, says, “The presence of bovine proteins in chicken is disgusting.?
However, FSAI’s director, Alan Reilly, says, “There may be many explanations for the bovine material, but we won’t know until the Dutch authorities come back and tell us. It is possible the bovine DNA signal is due to casein, a protein found in milk, which is often added to chicken and not linked to BSE. And the collagen protein could be from chicken skin.”
Yvonne Huigen, a spokesperson from the Inspectorate for Health Protection in the Netherlands, says Dutch officials are trying to identify the source of the bovine additive, but says, “At the moment we are dealing with a labeling problem, it is not a health problem.”
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Most raw chicken on grocery store shelves is contaminated with at least some fecal bacteria, according to Sulaiman G. Gbadamosi and M. Edith Powell of Tuskegee University in Alabama. Most of these bacteria–many of which can make people sick–are resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat human illness.
The researchers wanted to gauge the effectiveness of HACCP, a system intended to reduce bacterial contamination that the U.S. Department of Agriculture put in force in chicken-processing plants beginning in 1998. While the system does seem to be working, retail grocery stores that package chicken are not regulated by HACCP and contamination often occurs there.
Gbadamosi and Powell bought chicken parts including livers, thighs and wings from seven grocery stores in two rural Alabama counties. They put the chicken parts into a bacterial culture medium to see what would grow. Of the 253 samples they tested, 233 contained bacteria of the type that makes people sick. Three quarters of the bacteria were fecal, “which are linked to unsanitary conditions,” they say. The researchers also found bacteria indicating food spoilage in 5% of the samples.
62 of the 67 samples they checked, or 93%, were resistant to at least one antibiotic, while 87% were resistant to two or more antibiotics. Resistance to a family of antibiotics called cephalosporins, which are often given to people who are allergic to penicillin, was common.
Even when resistant bacteria are not capable of causing human disease, they can pass resistance along to other bacteria that can make people sick. The findings are likely be true in the entire United States, the researchers believe, because chicken feeding, raising, processing and packaging is uniform across the country.
Gbadamosi says contamination most likely occurs after retail grocery stores buy whole chickens in bulk and then repackage them–for example removing hundreds of chicken wings or thighs, combining them in a vat and bagging them by the dozen for sale. The best thing to do, he says, is to cook chicken until it falls off the bone in order to kill any bacteria.
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A bacterium that can cause gastric ulcers and increase the risk of gastric cancer was present in 40% of chicken purchased in a local grocery store by Christy Jack, a research assistant at the Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Research Institute in Chicago. “If we don’t cook food fully, there’s a possibility we could get contaminated,” he says. “It was an eye-opener.”
The bacterium Helicobacter pylori is believed to be transmitted orally by ingesting food or water infected with fecal matter. The bacteria probably contaminated the food products during handling in the store or slaughterhouse, Jack says. H. pylori infects the stomach lining, causing an inflammatory response that can increase the risk for gastritis and gastric cancer, but it can be treated with antibiotics.
The researchers evaluated 13 different food types purchased from behind the counter at a local grocery store. They were able to grow cultures of the H. pylori on about one third of the samples of the chicken, shrimp, pork, crab, clam and fish.
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Avigdor Cahaner, from Israel’s Hebrew University, has crossbred a small, bare-skinned bird with a regular chicken in order to produce featherless chickens that don?t need to be plucked. The lack of feathers keeps the birds cooler and leaner.
“(Chickens) consume a lot of energy in order to grow rapidly but in the process they generate a lot of heat and they have to get rid of it otherwise their internal body temperature will go too high and they will die,” Cahaner says. “That’s why the growth rate of boiler (chickens) is significantly reduced in hot seasons or hot countries and that is why the poultry meat is expensive in these countries.”
By keeping the chickens featherless, the birds would direct their energy to growing larger rather than keeping cool. Naked birds will also save poultry farmers large amounts of money on ventilation to prevent their chickens from overheating. The lack of feathers will save the large quantities of water used to pluck chickens at processing plants. “This water is full of feathers and drainage of fat from the carcasses. We believe that this part of the pollution can be reduced and feather plants can be completely eliminated,” Cahaner says.
The featherless fowl will work especially well in poor, hot countries. “It’s called sustainable agriculture,” Cahaner says. “Feathers are a waste, the chickens are using feed to produce something that has to be dumped and the farmers have to waste electricity to overcome the fact.”
Cahaner has already produced several dozen featherless birds but they?re small. He hopes to improve them they?re as large as the normal chickens that are the mainstay of the poultry industry.
Featherless chickens are not suitable everywhere, since they might catch cold in chillier climates. Cahaner says, “It would harm them if we forced these chickens to be outside in cold weather…This is not a chicken for the open fields of England in the winter time.”
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