Why That Ground Chicken Burger May Not Be As Healthy As You Think

May 12, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

(AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Americans love their chicken — in fact, they love it so much, it’s now the nation’s top choice for meat. In 2014, the average American ate about 100.5 pounds of poultry, compared to roughly 54 pounds of beef.

Many Americans consider chicken to be a healthier option. But as Harvest Public Media, a public media reporting collaborative that reports on food and agriculture issues in the Midwest, points out in a new report this morning, there’s a downside to the nation’s shift towards ground chicken and turkey. Specifically, heightened odds of salmonella poisoning and large-scale outbreaks. As the story notes:

… That so-called healthy option of a ground chicken burger is 12 times more likely than a hamburger to be contaminated by salmonella.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show that more than 20 percent of ground turkey and nearly 40 percent of ground chicken sent to grocery stores is contaminated with salmonella. Hamburger is just 3.3 percent positive for salmonella.

Cut-up chicken parts sold separately from whole birds, like breasts and wings, are also showing up potentially poisonous: at least 24 percent of chicken parts tested positive for salmonella, according to a USDA study.

In tonight’s FRONTLINE investigation, The Trouble With Chicken, correspondent David E. Hoffman examines why the standards and laws around salmonella have failed to keep up with the increasing danger posed by some strains of the bacteria.

One big factor — even though 80 percent of chicken bought in supermarkets is packaged as parts, government inspectors have primarily only been testing whole chickens for salmonella. In the film, Hoffman investigates how such gaps in the nation’s food safety system may have contributed to the largest salmonella poultry outbreak on record — which sickened more than 600 people over 16 months.

The Trouble with Chicken premieres on-air and online on PBS starting at 10 p.m. EST (check local listings here). In the meantime, you can listen to Harvest Public Media’s full story on the contamination risks in ground and processed poultry below, or read more.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a quote from a Harvest Public Media report that misstated the percentage of chicken and turkey parts that are contaminated with salmonella. The correct figure, according to USDA data, shows that at least 24 percent of chicken parts tested positive for salmonella. This story has been updated to reflect the Harvest Public Media correction.]

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