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"Free-Range" Chicken—No Guarantee It's Free of Salmonella

By Sharon Durham
September 20, 2004

There is no discernible difference in Salmonella levels between free-range, organically produced poultry and conventionally produced birds, an Agricultural Research Service scientist has found.

ARS microbiologist J. Stan Bailey of the Poultry Microbiological Safety Research Unit at the Richard B. Russell Research Center in Athens, Ga., examined 110 processed free-range chickens from three organic producers and found that about 25 percent of the chickens tested positive for Salmonella. Chickens raised conventionally had about the same levels.

Thus, the decision to purchase free-range chickens shouldn't be based on the belief that such a chicken is microbiologically superior, according to Bailey.

But that shouldn't deter people from buying free-range chicken if they prefer it for other reasons, according to Bailey, who presented his findings recently at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, in Philadelphia.

"Free-range" chickens—which are free to roam outside cages or other confined areas—make up less than 1 percent of the billions of chickens produced in the United States each year. Organic growers often raise their chickens under free-range conditions.

Salmonella, intestinal bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, are commonly transmitted by undercooked or uncooked foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 cases of Salmonella infection are reported in the United States each year. However, many milder cases are not diagnosed or reported, so the actual number of infections may be up to 30 times greater.

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

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