Amid a report that aired Wednesday morning on ABC News' "Good Morning America," several in the scientific, veterinary and food safety fields are affirming the safety of chicken and questioning the claims made by the report and the research that formed its basis.
The ABC report cites a small Canadian study that concludes a definitive link between the E. coli that causes human urinary tract infections and E. coli that could be found on chicken products.
"Bacteria move dynamically, not just in one direction and bacteria do not necessarily move from animals to humans so all pathways must be considered," said Randall Singer, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, who reviewed the scientific literature referenced in the ABC report.
"Perhaps most importantly, the potential transmission of E. coli to humans says nothing about why these E. coli are antibiotic resistant. The resistances observed in these E. coli are common globally and are unlikely to be attributed to chickens given the few antibiotics available for use in poultry in the U.S," he said.
Dr. Singer continued, "This story has nothing to do with antibiotics in poultry production and further changes to antibiotic use in poultry will not change the potential human health risks associated with these foodborne E. coli."
Charles L. Hofacre, DVM, Ph.D, professor and director of clinical services at the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine, echoed Dr. Singer's perspective.
"The data is not an accurate representation of how antibiotic resistance transfers from meat to humans," Dr. Hofacre added. "The study's authors are making some really big stretches of their data."
The National Chicken Council also sought to correct the record about the claim in the ABC report that, "the Food and Drug Administration says 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock and even healthy chicken."
This statistic is not attributed to FDA. The fact is there is no comparable human and animal data that makes such an analysis possible. Fully 40% of the animal antibiotics counted are compounds not used in human medicine, and therefore, their use in animals cannot be compared with those used in humans. FDA has outlined this point in letters to Congress that list several reasons the data cannot be compared and used in this manner.
Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., National Chicken Council vice president of science and technology, also questioned the results of the study and reminded consumers about proper cooking and handling of poultry products, because all bacteria, resistant or not, are killed by proper cooking.
"While we question the overall conclusions of these findings, the study's researchers point to improper food handling during meat preparation for food-borne urinary tract infections," Peterson said. "So it is always pertinent to remind consumers about the importance of safe food handling and cooking – washing of hands, cutting boards and utensils, cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 Fand preventing cross contamination in the kitchen."
In June, the National Chicken Council and a number of livestock, poultry and veterinary medical associations wrote to Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), citing several published, peer-reviewed risk assessments showing any threat to human health from antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is negligible, and pointed out many of the bacterial illnesses becoming resistant to antibiotics in human medicine have little or no link to antibiotic use in food animals.
In recent weeks, Consumer Reports' public policy group Consumer Union also released a campaign to eliminate antibiotic use in animals. Groups including the American Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council reacted to the release, saying the claims in the campaign were misleading.
The groups said they are aware of increased interest in animal antibiotic use.
"We have been encouraged by the significant changes taking place in the regulation of antibiotics," the groups wrote in the response letter. "Our members strongly believe in and understand the importance of strict adherence to prescribed withdrawal periods to prevent antibiotic residues in meat and poultry."