A California microbiology firm is hoping that consumers are ready to take the matter of food safety into their own hands.
Diversified Diagnostic Industries recently developed a $5 kit that will enable even the worst high school chemistry student to analyze raw chicken for potential salmonella contamination.
The Moraga-based company claims that Chik Chek is the first over-the-counter test for potentially harmful bacteria in food.
The product, basically three cotton swabs and two small containers of solution, debuts as public awareness of poultry contamination is keen. In fact, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report recently estimated that as much as 37% of the nation's chicken supply may contain salmonella--a bacteria which can cause nausea, fever and diarrhea. The illness can also be fatal in those whose immune system is weakened, such as infants, the elderly, cancer patients and those suffering from AIDS.
Test Simple to Perform
The new test is simple to perform. Raw poultry, which has been unwrapped and placed on a plate, is likely to produce residual juice. The kit's cotton swab is rubbed into the juice until fully soaked. After intervals of drying and alternate application of the two solutions, the swab will turn either a pink-purple color to indicate that salmonella is present or will remain a light yellow if no significant amount of bacteria is found.
In the event that the test uncovers contamination, the packet offers directions for safely preparing and cooking the meat, including a recommendation that the refrigerator be cleaned wherever the meat had previously been stored.
The directions do not, however, advise consumers to discard the chicken or return it to the market if the test proves positive.
"(People) should not throw the meat out (if it contains bacteria)," said Robert F. Hird, chairman of Diversified Diagnostics and Chik Chek developer. "There are two things that we recommend: Give the meat extra time in the oven, maybe 15 to 20 more minutes than usual. And secondly, we have enclosed (directions for) an elaborate cleanup to keep from having cross-contamination (of other objects which come in contact with the raw meat)."
Returning the bird to the place of purchase may also be futile considering the federal statistics on salmonella.
"If you threw the meat out, then chances are 1-in-3 or maybe 1-in-2 that back at the store you will get a bad (contaminated) piece anyhow," Hird said.
Faulty Sanitation Practices
Hird acknowledges that a salmonella test would not be necessary, especially one selling for $5, if good sanitation practices were adopted in the kitchen.
"If people just followed procedures as if every piece of meat had salmonella in it, then there is no need for a test," he said. "But this is an educational process. And if there is a high level of contamination that you detect, then you will know what to do about it."
Chik Chek employs a chemical testing procedure that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The kit will detect bacteria at very low levels, or 100 salmonella colonies per milliliter, which is far below the level at which illness is likely to occur, namely 10,000 colonies per milliliter, according to Hird.
The procedure may also be sensitive to other bacteria, in addition to salmonella, such as camphylobacter.
"If bacteria is there, then we will detect it," Hird said. "Five percent of the time we even detect bacteria that aren't the ones we are looking for because they are present in such huge, massive amounts."
Response to the kit from the poultry industry and government health officials has been mostly positive. Hird suggested that having such an over-the-counter device available may help regain consumer confidence, which was lost amid the recent adverse publicity regarding contamination rates.
"There is an awareness (throughout the industry) that there is a bacteria problem with their poultry and that people are scared to buy chicken," he said. "This system will enable people to take precautions if (the meat) is bad."
Hird did not mean to exclude other meats from scrutiny and says that Chik Chek works as well with turkey, beef and pork. In fact, in the coming weeks he plans to rename the test to reflect its versatility.
The company is currently negotiating with several major supermarket and drug store chains in order to make Chik Chek available at retail. For now, those interested in discovering whether their soon-to-be entree is contaminated could order directly from the company by calling (415) 631-0300.
Chicken Boycott Announced--In-home salmonella tests do not fully address the scope of the contamination question as evidenced by recent calls for a nationwide consumer boycott of poultry.
The Community Nutrition Institute issued such a plea recently as a means of prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "ensure a safer poultry supply."