MONDAY, Aug. 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- When it comes to chickens, free-range doesn't mean germ-free.
According to a new report, so-called "free-range" chickens are just as likely to be infected with the dangerous intestinal germ salmonella as ordinary chickens.
"Don't buy free-range because you think it has less salmonella," advises study author J. Stan Bailey, a research microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "My evidence shows it doesn't."
But that shouldn't prevent people from buying free-range chicken if they "think it tastes better or is more humane," he added.
While "free-range" may be a term familiar to many, free-range chickens are hardly a household product. They make up less than 1 percent of the billions of chickens produced and sold in the United States each year, according to industry estimates. In some cases, the chickens cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts.
But advocates say free-range chickens are bred more humanely because they can wander outside their pens. Producers also claim they taste better and aren't as contaminated by pesticides.
Bailey, who studies salmonella in chicken, said many consumers may assume that free-range chicken is safer for their stomachs than conventionally grown chicken.
Salmonella, an intestinal bug that typically causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, is commonly transmitted by undercooked or uncooked food. According to federal estimates, about 40,000 cases of salmonella infection are reported in the United States each year, although the actual number of cases may be 30 or more times higher. Some 600 people die from such infections every year.
In his study, which will be released Aug. 23 at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia, Bailey examined 110 processed free-range chickens from three producers. About 25 percent of the chickens tested positive for salmonella; no salmonella was found in five of 11 "lots" of 10 chickens each.
Overall, the presence of salmonella was slightly higher than in previous studies of conventionally grown chickens, Bailey reported.
The results shouldn't surprise anyone, said Richard L. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
Giving a chicken access to the outside doesn't result "in any difference in the microbiological profile or healthfulness of the product, or composition or fat content," he said.
In fact, more exposure to the outside might make chickens more susceptible to salmonella contamination because pens are better protected against germ threats, he added.
But, he said, "If it makes people feel better to spend twice as much for the same thing, they should go ahead."
Get details about food safety from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.