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Know your chicken

January 17, 2011

Image courtesy of Slow Food Nation

Growing up, we ate quite a bit of chicken.  With every chicken dinner came the following complaint from my father: “Chicken just doesn’t taste like it used to.” To me, chicken tasted like chicken.  I didn’t know the difference between good chicken and flavorless chicken.  I just knew chicken.

After watching Food, Inc. and reading about industrial chicken farming practices in the United States today, I now understand what my dad meant.

Industrial chicken farming has one goal in mind: convert chicken into meat as quickly and cheaply as possible.  These chickens are bred to gain weight.  Some cannot even walk because they have been bred with such large breasts that their body frame can no longer support them.  Producers feed chickens antibiotics and other supplements in order to withstand confinement and resist deadly pathogens.   Despite all these antibiotics, a CDC report shows that 8 out of 10 chickens are routinely found to be infected with salmonella, campylobacter, or both.  It’s not a pretty picture folks.

So what can you do about it?

Shopping for chicken in the supermarket can be a confusing process.  Packages are slapped with “all natural,” “free range,” and “organic.” But what do these claims really mean?  The answers might surprise you.

free range/free roaming: indicates that the producer demonstrated that the chickens have been allowed access to the outside–note this does not mean that the chickens actually frolicked in the great outdoors, it simply means that they have been allowed access to the outside. So does a closed-door to the chicken barn mean these chickens are considered “free range?”

natural: indicates that the chicken has been minimally processed, contains no artificial ingredients or added colors

hormone-free/no hormones: hormone use is not permitted in poultry production so any label containing these words simply indicates that the producer is adhering to USDA standards

certified organic: indicates that producer adheres to USDA standards including that the poultry is fed 100% organic feed, is not given any antibiotics or animal by-products, and has access to the outdoors.  Certified organic chickens may still carry salmonella and campylobacter because they peck at insects, manure, and other things harboring bacteria.

antibiotic-free: indicates that chickens were raised without antibiotics; however, unless the chicken is also labeled as certified organic, the claim has not been verified by the USDA

These labels are confusing and really not that helpful. So what else can you do?

Know your chicken. Find a farmer who sells chickens.  Talk to him about his chickens.  Visit the chickens.  How are they raised? What are they fed? Do they see the sun? Are they happy chickens?

Think this is too expensive or takes too much of your time?

Think again.

We know a local farmer who sells chickens for approximately $1.50 a pound.  Going to the farm is a family event.  We see our food being raised.  We know how it is butchered and how it is processed.  We know what we are putting in our bodies.  And we know we are supporting the local economy. It truly is an incredible experience.

If you’re interested, you can find your own farmer today.

sources: USDA, Gourmet Today, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle


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