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Chicken Feather Follicles Don’t Harbor Bacteria

By Sharon Durham
June 25, 2002

For years, researchers have looked for ways to cleanse chicken feather follicles of bacteria and other potentially harmful microbes during or after processing. This research was based on the belief that feather follicles--empty and open after feathers are plucked--harbor skin surface contaminants. Now, Agricultural Research Service researchers have shown that feather follicles don’t seem to harbor bacteria after all.

ARS scientists R. Jeffrey Buhr, Mark E. Berrang and John A. Cason of the Poultry Processing and Meat Quality Unit in Athens, Ga., bred featherless chickens, which do not have feather follicles, to compare against their feathered siblings. The researchers found that the amount of E. coli and Campylobacter found on the skin surface of the birds was basically the same, with or without feathers.

The first step in this research was breeding featherless, or scaleless, chickens that would be of comparable size to feathered chickens of the same age. By the use of artificial insemination, the offspring of featherless roosters and commercial broiler breeder hens were bred to produce both feathered and featherless chicks.

The birds were given Campylobacter orally a week before processing, during which the birds were handled in alternating batches of four feathered and four featherless chickens. The breast skin, under sterile conditions, was then carefully removed from the carcass and tested for Campylobacter,E. coli and other bacteria.

From all carcasses, the recovery of E. coli did not differ between feathered and scaleless fowl, showing that the presence or absence of feathers and empty follicles did not impact the level of bacteria recovered from the breast skin.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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