This article is for everyone who eats chicken. It’s not about whether eating chicken is moral or healthy. If based on your own ethical and nutritional requirements, you’ve already decided to eat chicken, please consider this advice:
Only eat chicken that is organic and raised outdoors on pasture.
If you can, buy your chicken directly from a farmer who slaughters their birds on the farm. If you’re shopping at the grocery store, look for chicken that is USDA Organic and, to ensure that it was actually raised outdoors on pasture, certified as Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership “Step 5.” (These two animal welfare ratings include pasture requirements that are stronger than those required by the USDA Organic program.)
Why follow this advice? Aside from the obvious animal welfare issues, organic chicken, raised outdoors on pasture, without the routine use of antibiotics, is better for your health, and better for the environment. (If you’re already convinced, scroll down for links on how to avoid chicken from factory farms).
Nine billion chickens a year
For the first time in 100 years, Americans are eating more chicken than beef.
Where does all this chicken come from and how was it produced?
We’d like to think it’s like the Portlandia “Is it local?” sketch. There, a waiter describes a locally raised organic chicken named Colin, who was “a Heritage Breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts.” It’s enough to make the diners leave the restaurant to go see Colin’s idyllic farm for themselves.
Unfortunately, reality is more like Food & Water Watch’s “Is it factory farmed?” spoof. There, the waiter admits the chicken was raised on a factory farm controlled by one of four giant corporations. It was kept in a crowded, filthy warehouse with a hundred thousand others, kept alive only with the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Then it was processed in a slaughterhouse where the lines move too fast to monitor or implement any kind of food safety system, so its carcass was simply dunked in bleach to remove any visible signs of fecal contamination.
Health, safety and factory farm chicken
Each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. More deaths are attributed to contaminated chicken than any other food, with salmonella as the leading cause of death.
If you heard about the recent Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak (or any of the many other food safety scandals that regularly make headlines), you know that where the chicken you eat comes from, and how it is produced, can have a big impact on your health. California-based Foster Farms is responsible for infecting 500 people across the country with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.
How chicken is produced is even more of a concern for the people involved in the production. The poultry industry is notoriously dangerous. It “chews up its workers and spits them out like a chaw of tobacco,” says Celeste Monforton of George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.
If you haven’t read anything about the meatpacking industry since you were assigned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in high school, you can update your knowledge of what it’s like to work in a poultry slaughterhouse by reading Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the US Meat Industry, Human Rights Watch’s “Blood, Sweat, And Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Unsafe at These Speeds,” or the Charlotte Observer’s “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Cost of Bringing Poultry to Your Table.” These books and articles provide graphic first-person accounts of common workplace injuries in poultry slaughterhouses, everything from fingers lost on the line to hands that are so mangled by long-term repetitive stress that they can’t hold a spoon.
Slaughterhouse workers are also sickened by chemicals sprayed on poultry carcasses to kill pathogens.
Working on a factory farm raising chickens is also dangerous and bad for your health. According to the Center for Disease Control, hazards include: “Exposures to chemicals such as ammonia or disinfectants and detergents used on poultry farms… exposures to biological agents including viruses… bacteria… and fungi… [and] injuries … from working in awkward body positions during activities such as poultry catching.”
1.5 billion pounds of chicken manure
The poultry industry is one of the nation’s biggest polluters. In what is known as the Broiler Belt of the Southeast, “The industry is serving a cocktail of injustice and pollution to rural residents, and most of them aren’t in a position to fight back,” according to an article in Grist.
But the water, air and greenhouse gas pollution generated by poultry factory farms isn’t confined exclusively to the regions where the farms are located. The environmental impacts of factory-farmed chicken, as documented in Pew’s “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Production in America,” and Frontline’s “Poisoned Waters,” are widespread.
Poultry farms are responsible for more manure pollution than other livestock operations. Of all the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), as factory farms are denoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poultry farms are the most densely concentrated. Concentrated animals means concentrated waste. Factory farm waste is typically spread on cropland. That’s the cheapest way to dispose of it. But there isn’t enough cropland for it all.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that there were 1.5 billion pounds more “nutrients” than available cropland could handle. More than half of this was attributable to poultry, even though poultry farms represented only 15 percent of all CAFOs. Where do all these “excess nutrients” end up? In our water. And that means polluted drinking water, closed beaches and fish kills.
Want chicken that’s more like Portlandia’s Colin, chicken that’s better for you, better for the environment and raised humanely?
Start by looking for USDA certified organic chicken in the grocery store. USDA Organic certification prohibits soaking chicken in chlorine, the use of feed containing slaughterhouse waste, and ensures chicken that hasn’t beencontaminated with arsenic.
Under USDA certification, the routine, over-use of antibiotics is also prohibited. Antibiotic-free organic chicken is less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, though a recent Consumer Reports study found more antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organic chicken than expected. It’s likely that the organic chicken gets contaminated at the slaughterhouse or at the meatpacking plant, as the same facilities process conventional and organic birds alike. (That’s one good reason to buy organic chicken raised locally on a small farm that slaughters the birds on site. Mobile slaughter and processing units are making it easier for small-scale chicken producers to avoid the large slaughterhouses).
The leading producer and distributor of USDA certified organic chicken is Coleman Natural Foods, a Perdue brand that markets Petaluma Poultry. Petaluma’s Rosie was the first USDA certified organic chicken brand. Rosie was “never administered antibiotics,” she was fed an “organic vegetarian diet with no GMOs” and she was raised “free range.” There are few standards of purity higher than “reared without antibiotics on an organic vegetarian diet.” But what does “free range” actually mean?
Rosie’s website features a close-up of a fluffy white chicken nestled behind a tuft of grass on a sunlit pasture. But it also mentions that the company had to start a recycling program with rice farmers to rid itself of the manure that piles up in the poultry houses. Under organic rules, farms are required to provide chickens with access to the outdoors. So if Rosie were really spending all of her time outdoors, would farmers have a problem with manure piling up indoors?
It turns out that the extent of outdoor access provided to organic, free-range chickens varies widely and could be anything from pasture to a dirt lot. The Animal Welfare Institute’s Food Labeling for Dummies warns about this claim: “The length of time the birds are required to have outdoor access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. Crowding is not uncommon.”
Organic is a very strong standard, overall, but for animal welfare guarantees and access to pasture, there are more specific and rigorous programs available. Organic Consumers Association recommends looking for USDA Organic plus an Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership (Step 5) label.
You can also buy direct from Animal Welfare Approved farmers here.
Or check out the American Pastured Poultry Producers’ Association, FarmMatch.com, EatWild.com andLocalHarvest.org to connect with farmers raising chicken organically on pasture.
Just like processed food companies should have to tell us which ingredients are genetically engineered, companies that sell animal products should have to tell us how the animals were raised.
Ideally, all chicken in the grocery store would be labeled to tell consumers how it was produced. A great model for a mandatory method-of-production labeling system is the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program run by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP).
GAP sets minimum standards of animal welfare that all producers, from Step 1 to 5+, must meet. All chickens must be handled in a manner that does not cause injury. No chicken may be physically altered. Among the physical alterations routinely performed on chickens that are banned by GAP are:
• Beak trimming: The incredibly painful partial amputation of the beak, which contains more nerve endings than our finger tips.
• Dubbing: Cutting off the chicken’s comb with a pair of scissors, without anesthetics or analgesics.
• Caponization: Castration that is performed without any pain relief and requires cutting into the abdomen to access the testes. (Caponization is banned in the E.U.).
• De-Spurring: Removal of the spur bud on the back of the male’s leg using a heated wire.
• Toe trimming: Cutting off toes to prevent growth of nails or spurs.
Under GAP’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system, the higher the “Step” the better the living conditions are for the chickens.
Step 1: Chickens are kept indoors, but they must have enough space to express natural behavior, including standing, turning around and preening, without touching another chicken.
Step 2: Chickens are kept indoors, and in addition to being given enough space to express their natural behaviors, they are given at least one “enrichment.” These are materials that add complexity to their environment and encourage the expression of natural behaviors, such as foraging, without losing their novelty. Examples include bales of straw or hay, and scattered grains. Step 2 chicken brands include Eberly, Empire Kosher, FreeBird, and Wise Organic Pastures.
Step 3: Chickens have seasonal access to the outdoors with provisions that encourage ranging and foraging. Indoors, at least two enrichments must be provided. Outdoors, at least 25 percent of the area must be covered with vegetation and/or forage. Step 3 chicken brands include Bell & Evans, Mary’s Chicken, Pine Manor Organic, Petaluma Poultry.
Step 4: Chickens live in an enhanced outdoor environment during daylight hours, with access to housing. When they may be at risk outdoors due to climatic conditions, the chickens have continuous access to a covered outdoor area with foraging material and natural light. At least 50 percent of the outdoor area must be covered with vegetation and/or forage. Step 4 chicken brands include the Crystal Lake ‘Free Ranger,’ Campo Lindo Farms, Joyce Farms, Draper Valley, Shenandoah Valley Organic, and Vital Farms.
Step 5: Chickens live outdoors in an enhanced environment during daylight hours and may only be housed during extreme weather conditions. At least 75 percent of the outdoor area must be covered with vegetation and/or forage. Step 5 chicken brands include Field to Family, White Oak Pastures, and Pitman Family Farms
Step 5+ chickens spend their lives on a single farm.
The best alternative to the GAP system is the Animal Welfare Approved labeling scheme, which is roughly equivalent to the GAP Step 5/5+ label.
Animal Welfare Approved has a few additional standards that aren’t included in GAP’s program, including a family farmrequirement. There are other minor differences between AWA and GAP. For example, the GAP standard acknowledges, “Rapid growth rate has a significant impact on welfare, including health, of chickens.” But AWA actually prohibits the use of: “Birds who have undergone genetic selection to the point that their welfare is negatively affected.”
See for Yourself: Videos of Chicken Farms
Pitman Family Farms, Global Animal Partnership Step 5 (second half of the video)
White Oak Pastures, Global Animal Partnership Step 5
TEDx Talk by Andrew Gunther, Animal Welfare Approved
Kingbird Farm, Animal Welfare Approved
Deck Family Farm, Animal Welfare Approved
B & Y Farms, Animal Welfare Approved
Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association.
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