Men’s Health Responds to Concerns from the Chicken Industry


http://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/chicken-industry-response?icid=OBtrafficMH_TBD_SB1

Earlier this month, we published a story about the scary state of chicken. Many of the findings seemed to have ruffled the feathers of the National Chicken Council. Tom Super, the Council’s Vice President of Communications, sent us a letter with his concerns about the article. We’d like to share with you our response.

Dear Mr. Tom Super,

Thank you for your letter about our feature “Clucked”—about modern practices in poultry production—which ran in the December issue of Men’s Health. With the help of our research and editorial teams, we address each of your concerns (in italics) below.

The author begins by stating that today’s chickens are grown to market weight by “factory-type” companies, and implies (along with a picture of a chicken being injected with a needle) that their growth rate is due largely in part to the use of growth-promoting hormones.  

We never say chickens are given hormones. The exact language we used in the text is “One reason the birds grew quickly: a diet supported by antibiotics [emphasis added].” Later in the paragraph we reinforce this point by stating, “partly because of these drugs.” Neither of these statements discounts other possible factors of increased growth. The artwork is, of course, not intended to be literal, but rather, is a visual concept that accents the text.

Broiler chickens are not raised on “factory farms;” 90 percent of the chickens consumed in the United States are raised on independent, family-owned farms that are contracted with integrated chicken companies. This provides market and financial security for the farmers, and diversity for producers to provide high-quality meat products.

This is, in fact, a relationship we showcase in the story, with the opening anecdote about Carole and Frank Morison’s poultry farm. In our description of their situation we state: “the Morisons were under contract with Perdue.”

You are correct that in the next section we describe that “with the 20th century came the transition to factory-type efficiency; poultry companies owned everything from hatcheries to packing plants.” This statement shows the evolution of chicken production. The Morisons are in fact representative of the modern relationship between farmer and chicken companies, as you’ve stated.

The growth of chickens over the past fifty years is due to groundbreaking improvements in nutrition, breeding and environmental managementnot the use of hormones and steroids, which have been banned for use in poultry by the FDA since the 1950s.  

We do not mention the use of hormones or steroids in the article—except in reference to mislabeled packages in supermarkets.

Producers and farmers are devoted to producing healthy, wholesome chickens to consumers, and are able to by collaborating with poultry nutritionists and geneticists to optimize the growth of their flocks. By providing safe, calm environments for chickens through temperature, air quality, and light control, farmers ensure their flocks are protected from stress and disease, and allow the birds to maximize their genetic potential.  Any growth promotion that occurs by antibiotics that could be provided for disease prevention and control is miniscule compared to that provided by excellent animal management practices. Broiler chicken farmers, both conventional and organic, strive to provide the highest level of care possible for their birds throughout their lives. Stringent welfare standards are in place in the chicken industry that prohibits the conditions portrayed in this article, i.e. poor-quality litter, high ammonia concentrations, and birds “crammed wall-to-wall.”  Litter and ammonia are carefully controlled by precise ventilation systems, and litter quality is maintained with spill-proof water and food containers. Birds are provided an excess of space to move comfortably, eat and drink and display natural behavior.  It is important to maintain these practices not only for a high-quality meat product, but also for disease prevention and food safety during processing.  Standards are strictly enforced for both organic and conventional chicken operations by the USDA inspection service and auditors following the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines for both broilers and broiler breeders.

When you assume excellent animal management practices, many problems improve. But many of the scientists and researchers we talked to for the story insist the conditions are such that the chickens are still contaminated and that means unsafe chicken is still reaching consumers.

Scientists we spoke to say it doesn’t matter whether antibiotics are used for growth promotion or disease prevention or other uses, it matters that they’re given at low doses to whole flocks at a time, which can lead to antibiotic resistance.

The poultry industry shares public health concerns about antibiotic resistance in the United States, and primarily provides antibiotics for prevention and treatment of disease.  This use falls under the suggestions of FDA’s Guidance for Industry 213: “(1) Limit medically important antimicrobial drugs to uses in animals that are considered necessary for assuring animal health” (GFI #213).  The poultry industry continues to work with the FDA to limit antibiotic use in farming; two classes of critically important human-grade antibiotics (fluoroquinolines and cephalosporins) are no longer used.  Chicken producers who choose to use FDA-approved antibiotics to prevent and treat disease, do so responsibly and under the care and supervision of a licensed veterinarian.

We make this point in the story. From the text: “The government is starting to take action. In late 2013, the FDA issued Guidance for Industry 213 (GFI #213), which asks drug companies to voluntarily change drug labels so antibiotics that are medically important to humans can no longer be used as growth promoters in animal feed. Once the words ‘growth promotion’ come off a drug’s label, any off-label use of that drug must fall under a veterinarian’s supervision.” Our experts say that it is too early to tell if this will make a difference on the proliferation of antibiotics as growth tools in the animal production industry. The biggest point here is that the industry could still use antibiotics to “prevent disease,” at the same low doses, which is still a huge problem, say experts.

Several scientific, peer-reviewed risk assessments demonstrate that resistance that is emerging in animals and transferring to humans does not happen in measurable amounts, if at all. Still, chicken producers are phasing out by 2016 subtherapeutic or “growth uses” of antibiotics important to treating humans.  It is important to note that the majority of the antibiotics that can be used for keeping chickens healthy are “animal only” drugs and not used in human medicine at all, and therefore do not represent any threat of creating resistance in humans.

Peer reviewed research also draws a link between antibiotic resistance in humans and interaction with poultry. Poultry workers are 32 times more likely to be carrying antibiotic resistant E. Coli.

Plus, when scientists driving behind poultry transport trucks with their car windows open found that significant amounts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria had spread to the air and surfaces inside the car.  Even bacterial resistance to animal antibiotics might be a huge problem for humans, because those resistance genes can be transferred to other bacteria, and human antibiotics are often related to animal antibiotics.

From Love 2011: “Multiple resistance genes travel on the same mobile genetic element (e.g., plasmid), allowing one pharmaceutical to select for microorganisms that are resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics.”

Most troubling, I’m afraid that after reading this article your readers will come to the conclusion that organically raised chicken is somehow “safer” than chicken raised by other production methods. Not only is this not true, it may lead some of your readers to think they can be lax with the proper handling and cooking of raw, organic chicken.

The research states otherwise. From the story: “In studies published during 2011 and 2014, University of Maryland researcher Amy Sapkota and her team collected poultry litter, water, and feed from 10 newly organic chicken houses and 10 conventional houses. They found that the salmonella collected in the conventional houses was seven times as multidrug-resistant as the sample from the organic houses.”

But, nowhere in the piece do we suggest that organic poultry be handled or cooked any differently than non-organic poultry, because it’s still highly likely to be contaminated.

In fact, we say the exact opposite in three tips toward the end of the story that deal with rinsing chicken (big no-no), cooking chicken to a proper temperature, and dealing with leftovers in a safe manner. It’s very important to treat all chicken as contaminated, because organic chicken is often still contaminated.

Researchers at Stanford concluded in 2012 that there was little evidence of health benefits from organic foods; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that the organic food label does not indicate that the product’s safety or nutritional attributes are any higher than the conventionally raised product.

According to our research department, this study found that bacterial resistance was higher in conventional chicken, and that omega-3 fatty acids were higher in organic chicken. We mention these points in the story. Also, the study you mention has been heavily criticized by peers for being inaccurate, sloppy and biased.

In June of last year, scientists at Penn State found much higher levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter on raw chickens purchased at Pennsylvania farmers’ markets.  And the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that chicken processed at very small establishments has Salmonella rates 17 times higher than that of chicken processed at large establishments.

This data is being misrepresented. As the study you link to states, “farmers’ market” chicken is not synonymous with “organic chicken.” In fact, the scientists drew clear distinctions between the two in the study and found—according to the study—“the microbiological profile of organic chicken was found to be similar to nonorganic, conventional chicken.”

The exact rates of contamination of purchased chicken vary between studies (including the ones here and the ones we mentioned in the story), probably because researchers used different methodologies and contamination is variable.  But it’s always there, and fairly high. The exact rates aren’t the issue; the fact remains that chickens are contaminated, even organic chicken. Organic chicken just might be less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This does not discount the fact that this study showed a higher prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter, but, as the report states, this seems to rest in part on the person manning the stand: “These results suggest that vendors could greatly benefit from food safety training and education to address antimicrobial interventions during processing. This study also demonstrates the rationale for further research into the safety of foods sold at farmers’ markets.”

With this in mind, consumers need to be aware that all meat, whether from conventional or organic chickens, must be handled correctly and cooked thoroughly to prevent food poisoning. Birds that have never been exposed to antibiotics may still harbor bacteria after processing.  This point was made in the article, and should be stressed so that there is no confusion about relative food safety.  The poultry industry continues to develop ways to minimize bacterial contamination on meat, but the fact remains that raw chicken is not sterile – whether it is organic or not, bought from your farmers’ market or super market.

We agree. We hope that the industry will work to reduce contamination and antibiotic resistance. In the meantime, consumers should take the necessary precautions we outline in the story to minimize risk.

Finally, the article questions the nutritional content of conventionally raised chickens in comparison to organic chickens.  Consumers should be aware that both options are scientifically proven to be equivalent, excellent options for active men.  Studies have shown that conventional broiler chickens have identical meat nutritional content to slower-growing breeds of meat chickens (Havenstein et al., 2003).  While humane treatment of animals is a top priority for all farmers, I am not aware of any scientific evidence linking animal welfare to human health and nutrition. Yet, the article recommends looking for “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Free Range” labels to buy chicken that is “more nutritious.”

We stand behind this recommendation, largely because we are confident in recent research suggesting that there may be a nutritional difference. From our story: “Research from Italy in 2013 found that the meat of slow-growing chickens raised at least partially outdoors had higher levels of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These chickens also had higher levels of antioxidants. The findings were echoed in a 2014 review led by James Sales, Ph.D., in the Czech Republic.”

We thank you for your feedback, and join you in the hope that our readers, and the general public, will be able to enjoy chicken safely, both by being protected from risks incurred during production and distribution, and by handling chicken safely in their own kitchens.

Sincerely,

Men’s Health

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