Farmers Market Chicken Found To Contain More Pathogens
July 12, 2013

Higher Levels Of Bacteria Found In Raw Chicken Bought At Farmers Markets

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A small-scale study from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences reveals raw, whole chickens purchased from farmers markets throughout Pennsylvania contained significantly higher levels of foodborne illness-causing bacteria compared to those found in grocery stores in the region.

The team, led by professor and food safety extension specialist in the Department of Food Science, Catherine Cutter, purchased 100 whole chickens from farmers markets. Ninety percent of the chickens tested positive for Campylobacter and 28 percent harbored Salmonella.

During the same time period, the team found 20 percent of raw, whole, organic chickens purchased from grocery stores were found to contain Campylobacter bacteria, and 28 percent tested positive for Salmonella. For raw, whole, nonorganic, conventionally processed chickens purchased from grocery stores, just eight percent tested positive for Campylobacter and 52 percent of contained Salmonella.

Overall, the researchers found chickens purchased at farmers markets carried higher bacterial loads than the birds purchased at grocery stores. These results, published online in the Journal of Food Safety, shed doubt on the widely held belief that locally bought poultry is safer.

"Some people believe that local food is safer, but we want to caution that's not always the case," she said. Consumer concerns about antibiotic resistance and animal-welfare issues in large animal-agriculture operations that supply supermarket chain stores might explain why people are shifting to buying more locally grown and locally processed foods.

"We hope this small study will lead to more extensive research to determine why we are seeing the levels of pathogens in these products and to find ways to mitigate them," she said.

The team was prompted by their results to look for causes.

"In the last decade, farmers markets have become an increasingly important source of food products for millions of Americans," said Joshua Scheinberg who conducted the research for his master's degree in food science." The popularity of farmers markets is no doubt a result of consumer demand for locally produced foods."

"As patronage continues to increase at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer marketing channels, the risks associated with purchasing fresh products directly from the farmer or vendor must be evaluated," Scheinberg added. "Potentially hazardous foods, such as milk, cheeses, and raw meat and poultry, also are popular at these venues."

The researchers suggest interventions, such as antimicrobial rinses, could decrease pathogen levels on poultry.

"The fact that the chickens from farmers markets had much higher levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella indicated that there's something else going on," Cutter said. "So, Josh developed a survey for poultry vendors, with questions focused on processing methods, as well as food safety practices."

Cotter and Scheinberg found, however, many of the farmers/vendors may not be using antimicrobial interventions during processing. This led the team to begin preparing educational materials and food safety training for farmers and vendors selling chicken and other poultry at farmers markets.

As an extension specialist, Cutter develops science-based educational materials for farmers/vendors who sell poultry at markets. She also explains applicable local and federal regulations, and emphasizes the need for antimicrobial interventions to prevent a higher prevalence of pathogens.

We are not doing the research to scare consumers or put people out of business; we're here to improve public health," she said. "We can train farmers and vendors to produce a safer product that won't make people sick. This approach also has the potential to help consumers feel more confident about buying their locally grown and processed products."

Although bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella are destroyed by proper cooking techniques, they can cause cross contamination if they come into contact with other foods through contaminated cutting boards, sinks, counter tops or utensils.