How Dirty Is Your Farmer's Market Chicken?

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Know your farmer, know your food, right? Particularly with meat, having direct contact with the people who raised the animals you're eating means you can get a whole host of information you'd never find on a package of grocery store meat.

But based on the results of a new study published in the Journal of Food Safety, buying meat direct from the farmer doesn't guarantee that it's any safer—from a bacterial standpoint, at least—than chicken produced at a large factory farm or even an industrial organic poultry operation.

Catherine Cutter, PhD, professor of food science and a food-safety extension specialist at Penn State University, traveled across Pennsylvania with one of her students and purchased 100 chickens from 21 different vendors at various farmer's markets, both producer-only markets and markets at which vendors sell other farmers' products. They also purchased 50 nonorganic, factory-farmed chickens and 50 certified-organic chickens from supermarkets across the state. Each bird was tested for a variety of bacteria, including Salmonella, campylobacter, and generic E. coli (bacteria that indicate fecal contamination and are commonly used as hygiene indicators).

The farmer's markets chickens had the highest levels of Salmonella and campylobacter, with 90 percent testing positive for campylobacter, compared to 28 percent of organic chickens and 52 percent of nonorganic. Salmonella was found on 28 percent of farmer's market birds and just 8 percent of nonorganic and 20 percent of organic birds. Interestingly, the organic chickens had the highest generic E. coli counts.

The researchers didn't isolate individual strains of bacteria, so it's unclear whether the bacteria on farmer's market birds were antibiotic resistant; previous research comparing pastured, organic, and factory-farmed meat has shown that even though total bacteria levels are similar regardless of farming method, factory-farmed meat has a significantly higher chance of being contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bugs than organic or pastured meat.

"I'm not here to slam farmer's markets," says Cutter, who's caught a good deal of flack from local-food advocates for her study. Criticized for taking money from industrial chicken producers, Cutter insists her study was funded out of her small university research budget and that she got no industry support. "We're here to improve public health so these people can stay in business"—a sentiment echoed by Brian Moyer, past board member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and a past board member of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. He wasn't involved in the study. "It only takes one story of someone getting sick to easily upset the local food movement," he says.

An Ounce of Prevention…
Cutter says her study was simply meant to find out whether bacteria on birds exist, not necessarily where they're coming from. But, "I think the reasons we saw higher levels on farmer's market chickens is because the farmers are not using antimicrobial interventions," she says.

Exemptions in something called the Poultry Product Inspection Act allow poultry producers who raise, slaughter, and process fewer than 20,000 birds a year to slaughter their birds either on their own farms or in a small, USDA-inspected processing facility. But in neither case are farmers required to use the chlorine baths used by nonorganic industrial slaughterhouses or the peroxyacetic acid (a potent hydrogen peroxide-vinegar mix) used in organic slaughterhouses to kill lingering bacteria on the animals after processing. "[Small farmers] are more than likely just rinsing them with water, putting them in bags, and selling them," Cutter says.

Some small operations do use microbial interventions—it's just not standard across the board, says Cutter, and she's hoping to educate farmers about better food handling. "This is a really good opportunity to develop food-safety training materials," she says, adding that she hopes to develop materials that can be handed out at farmer's markets or courses for farmers that can be taken online.

"I've been there," adds Moyer. "Small farmers have to be a jack-of-all-trades, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they've had training in food safety. We all like to produce and consume local food. We love the quality; we love the freshness. So the more we can ensure its safety, all the better."

Ensuring the Safety of Your Free-Range Fowl
Food safety doesn't rest entirely on the shoulders of farmers. "Consumers aren't really prepared and don't know to bring a cooler with them to keep chickens cold," says Cutter. "We want to make sure that people understand that basic food safety should hold true for what you buy at farmer's markets." So…

• Keep it cold. Bring a cooler or an insulated reusable bag and a few ice packs with you when you do your weekend market shopping so your chicken stays colder than 40ºF.

• Prevent cross-contamination. Even when cooking pastured birds, use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and for meat.

• Cook it thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to make sure your chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165ºF.

• Clean! Wash cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water after use and then disinfect them by spraying them first with hydrogen peroxide then vinegar and letting them dry. Cutter's previous research has shown that the mixture is surprisingly effective at killing bacteria on meat, and it's just as effective on hard surfaces.

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