The Scary Truth About Chicken

Monster chickens are taking over the supermarket. Be very, very afraid …

Drive down Byrd Road off Route 113 in Pocomoke City, Maryland, past the transfer station and into the driveway of Carole and Frank Morison’s poultry farm, and you’ll find two long yellow chicken houses. From 1985 to 2008, those houses contained as many as 27,200 chickens each; the Morisons were under contract with Perdue at the time. The chicks (exact breed unknown) were delivered by Perdue, and the Morisons raised them on feed (composition uncertain) supplied by the company. When the birds reached slaughter weight at seven weeks, Perdue’s chicken catchers came and took them to the processor. This routine was repeated five times a year.

Then Carole began questioning Perdue’s methods. She especially didn’t like the litter their birds were being raised on top of—a stew of sawdust, shavings, spilled feed, feathers, crap, urine, and dead birds. In mass-market chicken production, the birds live crammed wall-to-wall on that toxic potage. In winter, with the windows shut, she says, “you couldn’t see from one end of the chicken house to the other. It was a cloud of dust, feathers, and feces.” And it reeked of ammonia. When Perdue asked the Morisons to seal off the windows in their chicken houses, the Morisons refused because they didn’t think it would be good for the chickens. So Perdue terminated their contract. For years, the houses sat empty.

Now the Morisons raise chickens on their own terms. In those chicken houses, now cleaned and uncrowded, Frank kicks wood shavings under a water station. “See how nice and dry this is? When it was industrial chickens, you’d have this much poop under here.” He holds his hands several inches apart.

Each year, U.S. chicken farmers sell almost 8.5 billion birds for meat. Raising these animals produces 13 to 26 million metric tons of litter in a year. That’s more than three years’ worth of New York City trash—from all five boroughs. As you might expect, having chickens stand in their own excrement isn’t good for the birds—or for the eventual consumers of their meat.

According to the USDA, the average American eats nearly 57 pounds of chicken a year. (Beef is the only other meat we devour nearly as much of, at 55 pounds annually.) Heck, at roughly $1.50 a pound, chicken is one of the least expensive sources of lean, muscle-building protein you can consume.

But scan the poultry section of your supermarket, and you’ll notice rolls of plastic bags intended to prevent chicken juice from contaminating the food in your cart. You’ll see hand sanitizer in case the bacteria-laden liquid touches (ick) your hands. And you’ll ponder all sorts of mysterious label lingo on the packages: “No steroids added,” “No animal byproducts,” “No added hormones.” These signs all hint at a sordid, Dexter-like tale trapped beneath the shrink-wrap.

The saga of the modern chicken is one marred by unsanitary conditions in poultry housing. This environment harbors bacteria that powerful antibiotics can no longer kill. Plus, the supersize chickens that yield the meat you eat may be less nutritious than they were 100 years ago. How has this happened?

Rise of the Superchicken

A century ago, chickens roamed the family farm, laying eggs, eating seeds and bugs, catching vitamin D from the sun, and living well into adulthood. But with the 20th century came the transition to factory-type efficiency; poultry companies owned everything from hatcheries to packing plants. Conditions deteriorated. The chickens spent less time outdoors. To maximize profit, farms cranked out larger chickens faster. One reason the birds grew quickly: a diet supported by antibiotics.

These aren’t the high-dose antibiotics that doctors give humans to cure infections. Instead, they’re lower doses given as “growth promoters” to make chickens bigger. Studies in the 1940s and ’50s showed that chickens on low levels of antibiotics grew larger (we still don’t know exactly why). Average chicken weight more than doubled from 1925 to 2011. Chickens today reach slaughter in six to seven weeks, as opposed to 16 weeks in 1925, partly because of these drugs.

Scientists are trying to figure out if fast-growing “super-chickens” are less nutritious than the slower-growing poultry of the past. Research from Italy in 2012 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. Why? According to Cesare Castellini, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Perugia, Italy, author of the 2012 study, “Slower-growing chickens reared outdoors widely forage, and their intake of grass, worms, and insects is three to four times higher. They are healthier.”

Plus, they carry far less risk of superbacteria.

The Sick Side of the Poultry Industry

Bacteria such as salmonella, Campylobacter, and Enterococcus live in the guts of chickens naturally. They won’t harm the birds, but they can live on after passing through the intestinal tract and into the litter. If a bird is raised in feces-laden litter, the bacteria are easily spread to other chickens and increase in number. The bugs may even transfer onto vegetables in the fields where farmers spread poultry poop as fertilizer. And ultimately, they may end up in you after a chicken dinner.

Even though the USDA inspects processing plants, independent studies show that almost all supermarket chicken harbors bacteria. The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System found that among supermarket chicken breasts sampled between 2002 and 2010, an average of 83 percent were contaminated with E. coli, 47 percent with Campylobacter, and 13 percent with salmonella. In 2013, Consumer Reports bought 316 packages of chicken breasts from supermarkets across the country. It found that 97 percent had bacteria, including salmonella, Campylobacter, and Enterococcus.

If you don’t properly handle and cook poultry, these bacteria may cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems. Severe illness and death are likeliest in the very young, the very old, and anyone with weakened immunity. In fact, from 1998 to 2008, more deaths from foodborne pathogens were attributed to poultry than any other food. But foodborne illness is a fatal footnote to a much bigger problem: antibiotic resistance.

If you viewed chicken litter under a microscope, you’d see a primordial stew of mutating microorganisms. “It’s like this giant mixing pot for the evolution of these bacteria,” says Lance Price, Ph.D., a public health researcher at George Washington University. Price studies the DNA of bacteria, and he’s increasingly worried that antibiotics’ effectiveness is waning. “The CDC, WHO—everybody calls this one of the greatest threats we face today in terms of public health,” he says. “We can’t be using these antibiotics like cheap production tools.”

Price went to the Morison farm back in 2007, when it was still under contract with Perdue. In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, he reported that poultry workers were 32 times as likely as people outside the industry to be carrying antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Plus, there’s the nausea-inducing “pursuit” study from Johns Hopkins back in 2008: Researchers drove behind poultry transport trucks for 17 miles. These dedicated scientists left their car windows open, and after the trek they took samples from their cars. Their lab tests found that significant amounts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria had spread to the air and landed on surfaces inside the cars. These bugs are hardy. They’re everywhere, and they’d like to make a home inside you.

That Consumer Reports research found that about half of the samples had at least one bacterium that showed resistance to three or more drugs or classes of drugs that would normally be effective against them. In 2013 a particularly powerful salmonella outbreak originated from the U.S. chicken supplier Foster Farms. The flare-up featured the multidrug-resistant Heidelberg strain, which sent twice as many people (254, in 29 states) to the hospital as a typical salmonella outbreak would.

The CDC estimates more than 2 million Americans come down with antibiotic-resistant infections each year; at least 23,000 people die as a result. Doctors are starting to see resistance to a key remedy, ciproflaxin, in almost 25 percent of Campylobacter bacteria tested. The CDC estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections such as these cost the nation $20 billion in health care every year, with up to $35 billion yearly in added costs for lost productivity.


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