Eighty percent of raw chickens from Seattle-area groceries were contaminated with at least one type of pathogenic bacteria — mostly salmonella and campylobacter — according to tests commissioned by a Seattle law firm.

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Most cooks know by now that raw chicken can be a bacterial time bomb.

But tests commissioned by a Seattle law firm are bringing that message home.

Out of 100 whole chickens purchased at Seattle-area grocery stores in March, 80 harbored at least one type of disease-causing bacteria, including campylobacter and salmonella.

Ten percent of the samples tested positive for the same antibiotic-resistant strain of staphylococcus bacteria responsible for an epidemic of hospital infections. And organic chickens were just as likely as conventionally raised chickens to be tainted with a wide range of germs.

The tests were paid for by Marler Clark, which built its legal reputation on food-safety cases. But the results are similar to other surveys around the country, including one released last week that found nearly a quarter of chicken, turkey, beef and pork contaminated with drug-resistant staph bacteria.

A study by Consumer Reports last year showed two-thirds of whole chickens purchased nationwide harbored salmonella or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of food poisoning.

“I was intrigued by these studies and wanted to see if we were having the same issues,” said attorney Bill Marler. “I think it’s a warning to consumers … and raises the issue of what industry’s responsibility is for lowering that level of bacterial contamination.”

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council said the industry has done an “excellent job” of improving food safety. “But chicken is raw, and it does need to be handled and cooked in the normal and customary manner,” said Richard Lobb.

Cooking and careful cleanup can prevent food-borne illness. But it’s easy to spread contamination after handling chicken, Marler said. “You pick it up, then which counter did you set it on?” he asked. “Did you wipe your hands on your pant leg? Did it get under your fingernails?”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans is sickened every year by food-borne pathogens, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

The presence of MRSA, or Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, on chicken raises questions about possible infection routes, Marler said. “What if you have a cut and you’re handling a chicken?”

MRSA is a major cause of life-threatening infections in hospitals. Lobb said no human cases of drug-resistant staph have been linked to raw meat or poultry.

The Seattle tests also found one chicken contaminated by a type of E. coli bacteria that is normally found only in beef. Called E. coli 026, the strain is similar to the type of E. coli that killed several children who ate undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers in the early 1990s.

“That was a surprise,” said Mansour Samadpour, who conducted the tests for Marler Clark. With 70 locations, Samadpour’s Institute for Environmental Health is one of the nation’s largest food-safety laboratories.

He said Marler Clark did not influence the outcome of the tests.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors the levels of some bacteria in poultry. Effective in July, the agency is tightening its rules. Processors will have to ensure that no more than 7.5 percent of raw chickens are contaminated with salmonella and no more than 10.4 percent with campylobacter.

The 100 chickens tested in Seattle came from multiple producers in Washington, California, and other states. But collectively, the birds would not have passed the new standards: 65 percent were contaminated with campylobacter and 19 percent with salmonella.

More than 40 percent of the samples tested positive for Staphylococcus aureus, which is not regulated by USDA. (The totals add up to more than 100 percent because many chickens were contaminated with multiple pathogens.)

The local samples were collected from 18 grocery stores in Seattle, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood. They included two Albertsons; two Costcos; two Fred Meyers; four QFCs; three Safeway locations; and one each of Ken’s Market, PCC, Sam’s Club, Thriftway and Whole Foods. None of the stores received a clean bill of health, nor did any of the processors that were the source of the chickens.

Of 13 organic chickens tested, nine were contaminated with at least one pathogen, including salmonella, staph and campylobacter.

The bacteria on chicken are a result of fecal contamination, which can be aggravated by crowding and industrial slaughtering and processing. To cut down on the levels of bacteria, processors can rinse the birds in a chlorine solution, Lobb said. To comply with the new standards, they’re also exploring ways to better sanitize the litter that covers the floors of chicken-rearing facilities, he said.

Bacterial levels in poultry are much lower in countries where regulations are stricter, including Denmark, Marler said. The United States tends to put much of the responsibility for avoiding food-borne illness on consumers.

“But if consumers are more aware, and asking good questions at their grocery store,” he said, “it puts pressure back upstream for chicken manufacturers to do a better job.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com