In response to a report released Tuesday by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, the National Chicken Council said proper handling is a key factor in determining meat safety.
The CSPI report alleges that chicken is one of the "riskiest meat products in the food supply," along with ground beef. The report bases the determination on outbreak reports and the likelihood of hospitalizations associated with the pathogens most commonly reported in each meat category.
Hospitalizations caused by Salmonella put chicken in the "highest risk" category alongside ground beef, CSPI said. Clostridium perfringens, Norovirus and campylobacter were among the most cited illness-causing pathogens.
CSPI senior food safety attorney Sarah Klein said restaurateurs and home cooks should takes steps to minimize risk.
"Care should be taken to avoid spreading germs from the meat around the kitchen, and meat thermometers should be used to ensure that ground beef, chicken, and other meats are fully cooked," she noted.
Her comments were echoed by Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council.
Peterson noted that the poultry industry takes very seriously any human illness attributed to the consumption of a poultry product, investing tens of millions of dollars in technology and other scientifically validated measures to enhance the safety profile of chicken products.
Continuous inspection and testing by USDA has demonstrated the long-term success of these interventions in providing a safe and affordable protein for consumers, she said.
Peterson noted that from 2001 to 2010, the latest 10-year period for which data are available, outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens decreased by more than 40%, according to CSPI's own analysis.
According to CSPI, the illness data they use represent only a "small fraction of likely cases," Peterson said, thereby "biasing their data set from the start." Scientifically, if a complete data set were used and evaluated instead of evaluating only hand-selected data, the results would be quite different, Peterson added.
"The bottom line for consumers is that all chicken is safe to eat when properly handled and cooked," Peterson said. "Consumers can continue to feel confident about including chicken as a lean, low-fat and high-protein part of a healthy, balanced diet."
CPSI's study also ranked slight risk and medium risk meats, but said Clostiridium, which is linked to turkey, should be addressed by proper food handling.
"Keeping hot foods hot, refrigerating it within two hours of serving the meal, and using shallow storage dishes to ensure rapid chilling are all good strategies consumers can use to reduce their risk of getting sick from this common bacterium," Klein said.
For more information on preventing foodborne illness, view the USDA Foodborne Illness fact sheet.