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63% of chickens in study are tainted by bacteria

A germ that kills hundreds of people a year and sickens millions was found on two-thirds of the chickens bought at stores around the country for a study by Consumer Reports.

The bacterium - campylobacter - was found four times as often as salmonella, yet the government does not require that chickens be tested for it, said Edward Groth, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine.Campylobacter "is the most widespread cause of food poisoning in the United States," he said Monday. "We're talking up to 1,000 deaths and many millions of cases of indigestion and diarrhea, and it really is not something that should be overlooked."

Industry spokesmen called the article alarmist, saying that not all cases of campylobacteriosis come from chickens, and that it would be impossible or too expensive to eliminate all contaminated chickens.

Producers and the magazine agreed that thorough cooking will kill the bacteria, and that consumers should follow the directions on every package about how to handle poultry.

"If we knew how we could get rid of these organisms in fresh raw foods, we would," said Kenneth May, technical adviser to the National Broiler Council. "But we don't know how to do that, and certainly not in any kind of cost-effective manner at all."

Unpasteurized milk and unchlorinated water are other sources of the bacterium, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said poultry causes more than half of all cases. It estimates 500 deaths and 2 million cases each year from the germ. Most of these cases go unreported.

Generally, it causes fever and diarrhea that last no more than a week. But the infection can leave a person with arthritis and is a major cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can lead to paralysis.

Consumer Reports bought 1,000 chickens in 36 cities last fall, then sent them in coolers to a lab. Campylobacter was found in 63 percent of the birds, salmonella in 16 percent. Eight percent of the chickens had both and 29 percent had neither.

No one brand was consistently cleaner than others, Consumer Reports said. However, expensive premium chickens, including "free-range" birds, were the most contaminated.