Effects of abusive storage conditions on the quality of fresh chicken were studied by detecting DNA damage to breast fillets and liver with the neutral comet assay. Chilled samples were kept at 4°C for prolonged periods, whereas frozen samples were exposed to temperatures of 4°C, representing inadvertent thawing, and 20°C, representing extreme abuse in the distribution chain. Comets' mean tail moment distributions reflected the increasing patterns of DNA damage, but the differences of values between close levels of treatment were sometimes insignificant. The design of the DNA damage index, integrating the distribution of mean tail moments over three trials, provided values significantly different, which allowed a more precise discrimination between samples according to the treatment levels. Considering the background level of DNA damage in control cells, a DNA damage index value of 50 μm was set as a limit for the detection of abusive storage. Temperature abuse could be detected after 7 and 22 h of exposure at 4°C for liver and breast, respectively. These durations were by far shorter (1.5 and 2.5 h, respectively) when the temperature was increased to 20°C. As for chilled storage, its damaging effects could be detected after 1.5 and 2.5 days for liver and breast, respectively. Liver cells were more sensitive to abusive conditions than breast muscle cells. The comet assay's detection limit was applicable to samples that were still considered of good quality with regard to the microbiological shelf life, thereby showing its high sensitivity as a rapid test for assessing the quality of fresh chicken.

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