The University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety tested organic and non-organic chicken farms for salmonella.
They found a huge difference between the two.
The study tested organic and non-organic farms owned by the same North Carolina company. They took samples of chicken feed, water and feces and compared the rates of salmonella and antibiotic resistance.
38.8 percent of chickens were infected on non-organic farms, while only 5.6 percent were on organic farms. 27.5 percent of feed samples were infected on non-organic farms, while 5 percent were on organic farms.
A big reason for the difference in salmonella rates is the way the birds are raised. Non-organic farms can pack birds right next to each other, making it easier for them to transfer diseases. Organic farms, because they’re not allowed to use antibiotics or feed chickens animal by-products, and because they must allow the chickens access to the outdoors, are limited in how tightly they can pack their chickens. They must be sure the chickens can survive without antibiotics. And so, less tightly packed together, organic chickens are less likely to spread disease.
But the sheer prevalence of salmonella on conventional chicken farms isn’t the only concern. The bigger worry may be the presence of antibiotic-resistant salmonella on conventional farms. Almost 40% of the salmonella found on conventional chickens was resistant to a six-antibiotic treatment, whereas none of the salmonella found on organic chickens was resistant to the treatment.
This is both unsurprising and scary. Unsurprising because doctors have long cautioned that the use of antibiotics on conventional farms as a preventative measure and to fatten chickens gives birth to new, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria can infect humans but can’t be controlled by our existing antibiotics. Scary because these numbers are high enough that it’s clear doctors’ fears are coming to bear. After a study like this, it’s hard to argue that conventional chicken farming isn’t leading to antibiotic resistant salmonella.
Does that mean you should buy organic chicken? Well, it’s certainly another reason to. But since there is at least some salmonella on some organic chicken farms, it’s still good to follow the government’s advice on preparing chicken–cook it thoroughly, and be sure that any juices that run off the uncooked chicken don’t end up in the rest of your food, either from a cutting board, your sink or your kitchen counter.
But the government doesn’t have any guidance on avoiding antibiotic resistance. In the mean time, let’s hope we can come up with new antibiotics fast enough to keep up with the new bacteria we’re creating with very questionable farming practices.
Would you feel more comfortable eating organic chicken?