Regardless of which came first, chicken and eggs are favorites on most American tables. But industrially raised birds are routinely administered antibiotics to stave off diseases that arise from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Some scientists believe the overuse of antibiotics could be contributing to the spread of community-acquired MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection that killed more than 19,000 people in 2005. "We know from over-prescription in humans that if you put too many antibiotics out there, the microbes become resistant," says Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Additionally, many farmers add arsenic to chicken feed, which makes its way into the meat and eggs. Poultry plants, like stockyards, can also be huge polluters.
Reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses by wrapping chicken in a plastic bag at the supermarket to keep its juices from leaking onto other foods. Store the meat at or below 40 degrees in a glass container that will catch any juices. Thaw frozen chicken on a plate or in a glass container in the refrigerator. Keep raw chicken from touching other foods, and wash your hands, countertops, and utensils with soap and hot water after you prepare it.
Cook the meat to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees (use an instant-read thermometer) to kill any bacteria. When present, arsenic is stored in the fattiest part of the bird, so remove the skin from conventionally raised chicken before cooking. Keep eggs well chilled in the refrigerator.
Choose USDA-certified organic birds, which are raised without antibiotics, given organic feed (which doesn't contain arsenic), and provided access to the outdoors (although the agency is ambiguous about how much and the quality of "access" the animals should get). As with conventional birds, always cook organic chicken to 165 degrees to kill bacteria.
The USDA organic certification is also the only useful government-regulated label for eggs. Air chilled means the carcass was cooled in a refrigerator, not dipped in cool, chlorinated water, a practice that can lead to bacterial cross-contamination. Less meaningful labels include free range, which is not well defined, and hormone free, which is meaningless because the USDA forbids using hormones to raise poultry.
According to Stillerman, some chicken farmers are now labeling chicken and eggs "pasture raised," which means the birds were able to peck at grasses, insects, and other natural feed in open pasture. This fare is much more suitable than a purely grain-based diet, which means the chickens stay healthier and produce healthier eggs. The USDA does not regulate the "pasture raised" label, so it is left to the farmer to be honest about the way the bird was raised. If you can't find an organic or pasture-raised brand you trust, limit your chicken and egg intake. And because toxins tend to bio-accumulate in fat, it's best to eat the leaner parts of the bird, such as the breast meat.
Store eggs in their cartons to keep them from losing moisture in the fridge.