UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Whole chickens purchased from farmers markets throughout Pennsylvania contained significantly higher levels of bacteria that can cause foodborne illness compared to raw, whole chickens from grocery stores in the region, according to a small scale study by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Positive for bacteria
Of 100 whole chickens purchased from farmers markets, 90 percent tested positive for Campylobacter and 28 percent harbored Salmonella.
By comparison, during the same period, 20 percent of raw, whole, organic chickens purchased from grocery stores were found to contain Campylobacter bacteria, and 28 percent tested positive for Salmonella. Just 8 percent of raw, whole, non-organic, conventionally processed chickens from the grocery stores tested positive for Campylobacter and 52 percent of those contained Salmonella.
Overall, the chickens purchased at the farmers markets carried higher bacterial loads than the birds purchased at grocery stores.
The research, published online in the Journal of Food Safety, sheds some doubt on the widely held belief that locally bought poultry is safer, according to lead researcher Catherine Cutter, professor and food safety extension specialist in the Department of Food Science.
Why, higher levels?
The significantly higher bacteria levels in chickens sold at farmers markets prompted the researchers to look for a cause.
“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.” Scheinberg continues working toward a doctoral degree advised by Cutter.
Cutter and Scheinberg speculate that interventions, such as antimicrobial rinses, can lower pathogen levels on poultry carcasses.
“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.”
Training and education
However, they found that many of the farmers/vendors may not be incorporating antimicrobial interventions during processing. As a result, the researchers now are preparing educational materials and food safety training for farmers and vendors selling poultry products at farmers markets.
Cutter noted that her role as an extension specialist is to develop science-based educational materials for farmers/vendors who sell poultry at markets, explain the applicable local and federal regulations, and emphasize 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.”
Bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, are destroyed by proper cooking of poultry products; however, they also can cause cross-contamination if they come in contact with other foods through contaminated cutting boards, sinks, countertops or utensils.