Food study finds E. coli

About a third of the chicken samples taken from two major Charleston area grocery store chains tested positive for E. coli bacteria, according to the results of a 10-city food safety study released last month.

The local samples, taken from Harris Teeter and Publix stores in Mount Pleasant, included whole chickens, breasts, drumsticks, thighs or wings, according to the study from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health research group in Washington, D.C.

“The results show that feces are common on chicken products,” according to the study.

Harris Teeter spokeswoman Danna Jones said in a statement it is “not uncommon to find pathogens in raw chicken,” noting that poultry “should be handled appropriately during meal preparations.”

“Our raw chicken has cooking instructions which if followed make it safe for consumption,” she said.

Publix corporate spokeswoman Brenda Reid said in a statement that “Food safety is a number one priority at Publix. ... The presence of generic E. coli is not a guaranteed indicator for fecal contamination. Most E. coli strains are completely harmless and all E. coli strains are killed through proper cooking.”

A Charleston expert in the field of microbiology said the findings are not surprising and are not cause for alarm.

“This is why there’s no such thing as poultry sushi,” said Dr. Michael Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at MUSC. “Humans have learned over millennia that if you eat raw chicken, you will get sick.”

An independent lab contracted by the national research group tested a dozen samples from 15 grocery store chains for presence of E. coli, bacteria that indicate fecal contamination, the study said. Overall, 48 percent of samples tested positive, the lab found. Chicken products from all 10 cities and each of the 15 chains tested positive, though the rates varied, according to the study.

Researchers found that skinless chicken is at least as likely as chicken with skin to be contaminated.

It also found that antibiotic-free chicken appears as likely as conventional chicken to be contaminated.

“Although variability was evident from store to store, it appears that consumers bring feces into their kitchens on roughly half of the retail chicken products purchased, regardless of the region or brand,” the study says.

Schmidt said consumers should use separate cutting boards for poultry and produce to avoid contamination. Rinsing poultry with boiling water kills bacteria and removes dirt and feces, he said.

Other cities in the study were Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Houston, Miami, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego. For more on the study, see www.pcrm.org/health/reports/fecal-contamination-in-retail-chicken-products.