The average teenage boy is likely to have an interest in chicken only when it hits his dinner plate.
But after a trip to Israel for his sister’s bat mitzvah, Jack Millman returned to New York wondering whether the higher costs of kosher foods were justified.
“Most consumers perceive of kosher foods as being healthier or cleaner or somehow more valuable than conventional foods, and I was interested in whether they were in fact getting what they were paying for,” said Millman, 18, a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City.
That question started him on a yearlong research project to compare the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria on four types of chickens: those raised conventionally; organically; without antibiotics; and slaughtered under kosher rules.
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“Every other week for 10 weeks, I would go and spend the entire Saturday buying chicken,” he said. “We had it specifically mapped out, and we would buy it and put it on ice in industrial-strength coolers given to us by the lab, and ship it out.”
All told, Millman and his mother, Ann Marks, gathered 213 samples of chicken drumsticks from supermarkets, butcher shops and specialty stores in the New York area.
Now they and several scientists have published a study based on the project in the journal F1000 Research. The results were surprising.
Almost twice as many of the kosher-chicken samples tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli as did those from conventionally raised birds. And even the samples from organically raised chickens and those raised without antibiotics did not significantly differ from the conventional ones.
“I was pretty sure that blessings wouldn’t protect chicken from antibiotic resistance,” said Lance B. Price, a professor at George Washington University and an expert on antibiotic resistance who worked with Millman on the study. They were introduced by Millman’s uncle, Bruce Hungate, a biology professor at Northern Arizona University, who suggested the project and is also listed as an author.
“But it was a surprise to me,” Price said, “that we found as much antibiotic-resistant E. coli in chicken that was organic and raised without antibiotics.”
The contamination does not mean the chicken is dangerous to eat. Generally, poultry is safe if handled carefully and cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
About three-quarters of the antibiotics sold in this country are used in animal husbandry, primarily as feed additives, and concerns are growing about how the practice is contributing to rising antibiotic resistance.
Organic chicken is raised without antibiotics — at least from the time the chicks are 2 days old. But before that, they can be treated with antibiotics, and it is common for chicken breeders to inject eggs with antibiotics to prevent diseases and to administer antibiotics to chicks right after they hatch.
That might be one reason so much resistant E. coli was found on the organic chicken, said Thomas B. Harding Jr., an organic-farming consultant who reviewed the study at The New York Times’ request. Or the chicken might have been contaminated in processing, he said — a potential problem also identified in the study.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has tested thousands of samples of chicken for contamination and antibiotic resistance.
“Overall, having an organic meat be resistant to one antibiotic is pretty common,” said Urvashi Rangan, the director of the consumer-safety and sustainability group at Consumer Reports. “When we start to see resistance to multiple antibiotics, that’s when we would be concerned.”
Rangan agreed that the organic chicken in the sample might have been processed in facilities that also process conventional chicken. “Slaughter plants with split operations where someone didn’t properly clean a piece of equipment, things like that,” she said.