How Safe is that Chicken?

You would think that after years of alarms about food safety—outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup—a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in our latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease.

Consumer Reports has been testing chickens in markets for over a decade and the industry still hasn’t gotten much cleaner.  While I appreciate their work on behalf of public health, I wish that Consumer Reports would get to the heart of the matter regarding solutions–something I will provide a glimpse of.

They do note that organic poultry, especially those air chilled, have the lowest contamination levels.

  • Among the cleanest overall were air-chilled broilers. About 40 percent harbored one or both pathogens. Eight Bell & Evans organic broilers, which are air chilled, were free of both, but our sample was too small to determine that all Bell & Evans broilers would be.
  • Store-brand organic chickens had no salmonella at all, showing that it’s possible for chicken to arrive in stores without that bacterium riding along. But as our tests showed, banishing one bug doesn’t mean banishing both: 57 percent of those birds harbored campylobacter.

The article provides an overview of the non-organic industrial chicken production system, which includes antibiotics from birth and chlorine baths during meat processing.  Consumer Reports also tested and found high levels of antibiotic resistance.

Among all brands and types of broilers tested, 68 percent of the salmonella and 60 percent of the campylobacter organisms we analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics.

This discomforting information suggests a systemic problem in the entire production model.  The irony that organic chickens, which were never given antibiotics nor dipped in chlorine, were the least contaminated is not elaborated upon.  Furthermore, Consumer Reports overlooks a method of poultry production that probably poses the least risk of all–pastured poultry.

Pastured Poultry

The most famous advocate of pastured poultry is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.  He is one of the featured characters in Food Inc. In one scene he discusses how the USDA tried to shut down his chicken processing facility, which is a shed with no walls, because of sanitation concerns.   Regulators backed off when their tests found his meat cleaner than any other they’d sampled.

A few miles from my home in Corvallis, a young protege of Salatin’s named Tyler Jones runs Afton Field Farm.  Tyler told me the story of how he got his chicken into a local restaurant.  The owner bought several of his birds and gave them to his chef.  The chef didn’t know the source, but soon asked if he they could switch over to buying Tyler’s chickens exclusively.  Why?  Because the texture was so much better and the meat didn’t hurt the hands of the cooks.

I didn’t know why other chickens would be painful to work with until Tyler explained that chickens were normally processed by soaking in a chlorine bath.  Yuck!  Apparently those chemical are still there when they get to the kitchen.

AftonImage caption: Meat birds are raised in mobile pens where in addition to feed and water, they are given access to fresh air, sunshine, and pasture.  Image from Afton Field Farm, Corvallis, OR.

If you have seen Food Inc. you can readily appreciate how bacterial contamination occurs.  Thousands of birds are confined to huge, indoor facilities where they hobble around in feces.  Pathogens get into their feathers and digestive systems and can be passed from mother hens to chicks through eggs.

The pasture poultry system is an astonishing contrast.  Birds are kept outside and moved to new ground each day.  Sunlight acts as a natural disinfectant and droppings act as field fertilizer rather than dangerous pollution.  Too bad Consumer Reports overlooked this much safer and healthier method.  But good thing Farmland LP is around to expand its practice.