When we think of farming, most of us conjure up an image of a field and a barn, a few cows and maybe some corn. While farms of this description do still exist, they no longer have much to do with feeding us. My original plan for this column was to cover livestock production in the U.S., but the scope of that undertaking turned out to be too broad. So I’m going to limit this discussion to chickens, as a proxy for livestock production in general. Much of the information in this column comes from Jonathan Safran Foer’s excellent book, Eating Animals.
Chicken production in the U.S. is an enormous industry, with more than eight billion chickens consumed a year and billions more raised to lay eggs. Over 99% of all these chickens and eggs come from factory farms. Factory farming of chickens in the U.S. began in the 1920s in the Delmarva Peninsula (the extension of land running south from Philadelphia through Delaware and Maryland, also referred to as the Eastern Shore) which remains the center of the U.S. chicken industry today. If you have never seen a chicken farm they consist of long building each containing tens of thousands of chickens packed tightly together.
The high population densities of the factory farm flocks presented new challenges which changed nearly everything about how chickens were raised. Prophylactic use of antibiotics was introduced to fend off disease. Farmers began removing the chicken’s beaks to prevent them from harming one another. Selective breeding was used to promote faster growth. Every aspect of the chicken’s existence began to change, including drastic reductions in living space, conversion to high carbohydrate feed, and strict controls of lighting and temperature. The USDA helped to promote these changes by launching its “Chicken of Tomorrow” program in 1946, intended to increase output per bird and per farm.
From a farm output standpoint, the results of the changes discussed above have been remarkable. From 1935 to 1995, the growth rate of broilers (chickens grown for meat) increased by 65%, while the time to market was reduced by 60%. Today the average broiler in the U.S. is slaughtered on the 40th day of her life, at which point she will weigh 5-6 lbs. The use of feminine terms in the previous sentence is not by accident, as all male chicks born in factory farms are destroyed shortly after hatching. While this is not a column about chicken welfare, I should note, to put it absurdly lightly, these 40 days bear no resemblance to a bucolic stroll around the farm. The experience for a worker in the chicken factory is not to be envied either.
Factory farm conditions do not produce healthy chickens. Approximately 83% of chickens, including those labeled as “organic” arrive at the supermarket infected with some combination of E-coli, Salmonella, or campylobacter bacteria; 83%! This should be a strong reminder to be careful in handling your raw chicken and to make sure that you cook it thoroughly before eating.
Allow me a brief tangent on E-coli. Even though the source of E-coli is animal feces, most of the news stories we encounter about E-coli infections stem from the eating of vegetables. Vegetables become contaminated with E-coli either by being transported in a truck which contains residual animal feces from a previous livestock shipment, or by being rinsed with water tainted with livestock farm runoff. When E-coli gets on vegetables which are not cooked, liked salad greens, even a good washing may not prevent food poisoning. This dynamic represents yet another advantage for purchasing your vegetables directly from a local grower who manages the handling and transport personally.
The fact that the vast majority of factory farmed chicken meat is contaminated with bacteria is not surprising once you learn how it is processed. Immediately after the chickens are slaughtered, they are thrown, en masse, into large vats of cold water to cool the meat. The water in the bath quickly transforms into what is commonly described as a “fecal soup,” and it allows bacteria from infected carcasses to infiltrate uninfected ones.
In Europe and Canada, chicken producers are converting to air rather than water coolers, which dramatically reduce carcass-to-carcass transfer of bacteria. Despite this proven solution, over 99% of chickens in the U.S. are still thrown into the “fecal soup”. Why, you ask? The answer is that the dead chickens absorb some of this contaminated water which makes them heavier. Chicken, as you know, is sold by the pound.
In the 1980s, the USDA limited the permissible carcass weight gain in the water baths to 8%. Then in the 1990, U.S. consumers sued the chicken industry, not for recklessly contaminating our food but for artificially raising the price. Since the industry could not provide any basis for the 8% weight gain limit, the courts threw it out as “arbitrary and capricious.” So things got better, right? Nope. The chicken industry commissioned some “independent” studies which concluded, in a remarkable surprise, that 11% was the appropriate amount which was then adopted by the USDA.
In addition to the issues regarding bacterial contamination, both chicken meat and chicken eggs are less nutritious than they used to be. As I described in Part III of this series, changes in farming practices and cumulative soil exhaustion have resulted in a much lower vitamin and mineral content in our food. Just as the nutrition content of people food has dropped, so has that of chicken feed. And as the nutrition content of the chick feed falls, so does the nutritional value of the chicken meat and eggs.
I realize that I have written yet another rather dour column in a rather dour series. This is never my intent when I start. But as often seems to happen, as I started to do the research for this series, it was challenging to find positive trends. For those of us fortunate enough to live in Chapelboro, we have a burgeoning local food movement which provides at least reasonable access to local, healthy foods. This is not the case for the majority of the country. Next week, in the conclusion of this series, I’ll share my thoughts on what we need to do locally and nationally to fix our food supply.
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