The NY Times recently had a story about a study by a pro-vegan medical group which claimed that 48 percent of chickens bought at supermarkets are contaminated with E. coli. Of course, the vegan group referred to the E. coli as feces. This is correct, as E. coli are a component of feces. Then again, if you keep your toothbrush in your bathroom, the odds are pretty good there are some E. coli on it too.


Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of factory farming, especially since it is a major contributor to the antibiotic resistance problem. But this study is idiotic–and more importantly, it’s not anything the government doesn’t already publicly release. Here are some other issues:

1) According to the (non-peer reviewed) study, 48% of chicken products are contaminated with E. coli. That’s actually low relative to most studies, which suggests they either have an unrepresentative sample, or they don’t know what they’re doing.

2) Chicken has always had E. coli contamination. That’s why you cook it.

3) There were no halcyon days of yore where people routinely ate raw chicken. Unless your grandparents were carnival freaks. Members of the genus Homo have been cooking food for at least hundreds of thousands of years. Regarding meat in general, every so often, there is a brief fad where people eat raw ground beef. There is a reason it’s a brief fad.

4) We don’t know what the E. coli are. Are they potential pathogens? Are they antibiotic resistant? That would be good to know. But the study doesn’t discuss that.

5) This is a study whose sole purpose is performance art. As mentioned above, the NARMS program routinely surveys food products, and does so much more rigorously. This study tells us nothing we didn’t already know, and simply serves as a excuse for a press release.

6) The he-said, she-said reporting doesn’t help. Make a call here: is this study anything other than repetitive sensationalism? No? Then don’t run it.

Like I mentioned, I’m no fan of factory farming, but a little less credulity by the NY Times would help here. Yes, there’s E. coli on chicken. We know that already, and it’s not news. Hell, the government tells us that every year. Next time, why not cover the NARMS report in detail, or any other number of studies that describe something important like the spread of antibiotic resistance through the agricultural system?


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  1. Joe Shelby says:

    Well, the Science Editor at the Times should have caught this and not run it…except there very likely isn’t one anymore.

  2. chris says:

    Best. Headline. Ever.

    Thanks for the laugh – I’ll take all I can get!

  3. Min says:

    When I lived in Japan I developed a taste for raw chicken breast (tori sashi — as in sashimi). Once at a Japanese restaurant where I hung out a lot I asked one of the chefs if I might get some tori sashi sometime. Everybody replied, Are you crazy? Not in America. Raw chicken is unsafe.

  4. Min says:

    April 18. Let’s celebrate Paul Revide’s Rear with a juicy hamburger. 🙂

  5. Nina says:

    Raw ground pork and beef are very popular in Germany, yet there are no recurrent E. coli/ Salmonella epidemics from those. Then again, we have mandatory testing and rules about ground meat having to be sold the day it was ground (unless pre-packaged in protective atmosphere), so…
    Damnit, now I’m in the mood for Mettbrötchen.

  6. sciliz says:

    item #4 is my favorite. E. coli is a hugely diverse quasi species. Hello E. coli strain… Do you have shiga toxin? Do you have hemolytic virulence factors? Or are you basically K-12?
    Or are you O104:H4, and in my spouts, poisoning my vegan friends?

    @Joe Shelby- Historically, I have found the NYT to be among the best science coverage in the dead tree newspaper land. So personally, I wouldn’t hold this one oversight against them. They do have a science editor- http://barbarastrauch.com/about.asp
    She’s on twitter too (@bstrauch) but maybe needs a nudge to engage a bit more.

    @Nina- There are no recurrent outbreaks, or there are no outbreaks that you remember? http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=2667
    The theoretical infectious doses of some of those nasty strains of E. coli is 10 bacteria. At that point, even a couple of hours old is far too long.

    • Nina says:

      I did say “recurrent epidemics”, not “occasional outbreaks”. Of course there are outbreaks. Obviously, not often enough, and none serious enough to declare raw pork and beef unsafe here. Interestingly enough, EHEC outbreaks big enough to make “public waves” (that I can remember!) came from raw milk and sprouts. Salmonella (and Campylobacter) *usually* cause problems coming from chicken and raw eggs, not ground pork or beef.

      My point is that eating raw pork and beef is not a suicidal mission, at least not any more (rather, possibly less) than eating sprouts is, in response to the “brief fad” bit. Those products are deemed safe here by the authorities- as long as the specified guidelines are met-, and they are very, very popular and common. The only instance where their consumption is publicly advised against is for pregnant women. That said, we do have zoonosis surveillance programs in place for animal farms, for a variety of microbes (also, parasites such as Trichinella).

      I’m fully aware that those products are viewed as inherently dangerous elsewhere, and therefore, I’ve had lots of fun offering them to visiting British microbiologists ;).

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