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Plucky Teen Gets Surprising Lowdown on Kosher Chicken

October 15, 2013 By:
Julie Wiener, JTA
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NEW YORK — For several months during the spring of his 10th grade year, Jack Millman had an unusualSaturday ritual: He and his mother would ride around metropolitan New York and buy up vast quantities of raw chicken.

Millman and his mother, Ann Marks, didn't cook the poultry. Instead they put it on ice and shipped it overnight to a lab in Arizona, which tested it for antibiotic-resistant strains of the E. coli bacteria.

The study, which included 213 samples of raw chicken purchased at 15 locations in the New York area, found that kosher chicken has nearly twice the frequency of antibiotic-resistant strains as non-kosher. The results were first published in the journal F1000 Research in July.

The findings are perplexing. Kosher laws contain no requirements about how chickens are raised, and the only difference between kosher and conventional poultry is in the slaughtering and de-feathering.

Lance Price, a microbiologist with Translation Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix who helped design the study, suggested that kosher companies may be sourcing from producers or hatcheries that use more antibiotics.

But Joe Regenstein, a food scientist at Cornell University, and Timothy Lytton, the author of a recently published book on the kosher food industry, dispute that notion.

Writing recently in Food Safety News, Regenstein and Lytton say a more likely explanation lies in the kosher method of feather removal. Most poultry is placed in scalding water before plucking, but kosher poultry is dry plucked or soaked in very cold water due to restrictions prohibiting any form of cooking before the meat has been soaked and salted.

“Immersion in scalding water prior to plucking of non-kosher poultry production reduces microbial load, by either washing microbes away or by killing them, which might account for differences between kosher and other production methods,” Regenstein and Lytton wrote.

Millman, 17, who does not keep kosher, told JTA in an interview between classes at the prestigious Horace Mann School that he was “very surprised” by the findings.  The Manhattan resident first became interested in kosher issues a few years ago during a family trip to Israel.

“While we were there, we were eating a lot of kosher food, and I was interested in whether kosher is healthier,” he said.

Interested in exploring the question, Millman approached his uncle, Bruce Hungate, a biology professor at Northern Arizona University. Hungate, the director of the university’s Center for Ecosystem, Science and Society, connected him to Price.

Together they designed an experiment to test 10 brands of chicken in each of four categories. Millman did not perform the actual lab tests, but he collected the samples, visited the lab and took the lead in writing up the results. He also presented the findings at the American Society for Microbiology conference in Denver this year.

Millman and the professional scientists with whom he partnered acknowledge that the study, with its relatively small sample size, is not intended to offer the final word on the topic.

“This was big enough for a pilot study, and the finding was dramatic and consistent enough to indicate a problem,” Price told JTA. “Of course there’s a need to follow up with a larger study and larger sample.”

Price said that because the drugs used by companies to raise chickens are "considered a trade secret” in the United States, provided they use FDA-approved antibiotics, it is difficult for researchers to track. He noted that 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics are used each year in meat production, compared to 7.7 million used for human medical purposes.

Millman said he isn't sure whether more research with raw chickens is in his future, though he remains concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in meat production and its implications for consumer health and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Having varied interests, the high school senior has yet to decide whether he will major in the sciences in college.

“I guess the most important skill that I learned is the importance of asking good questions and being willing to follow where your curiosity takes you,” Millman said.

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