When we look at overall consumption of animals in the United States and across the globe, nine out of 10 animals consumed are chickens. Why is that? Well, one reason is that, like fish, chickens are a smaller animal and more of them must be killed per pound. Another reason is that I think people tend to like chicken more than pork and beef. Part of this reasoning has to do with health: People think that chicken (white meat) is healthier than beef and pork (red meat). This is partly true, because chicken is leaner and lower in fat. It’s also cheaper and more convenient, and it seems to me that consumers think they get more for their money when buying chicken.
There is a hidden side to chicken, and the reason might make you think twice about putting chicken on your plate. Ultimately, chicken tends to be recalled more and is less safe than other meats. Tyson Foods Inc., a multinational corporation based in Arkansas, recalled over 33,000 pounds of chicken for Salmonella Heidelberg contamination Jan. 10. According to FoodSafetyNews.com, this is not the first time Tyson has recalled massive amounts of chicken. In 2012, they recalled over 67,000 pounds of boneless chicken wings for the wrong label (the chicken had contained milk, eggs and soy when the label didn’t specify that), and in 2013, they recalled over 127,000 pounds for mislabeling again. Another company, Reser’s Fine Foods, recalled their chicken, ham and beef products (numbering over 100,000 products) in October 2013 due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes — a bacterium that causes listeriosis, which causes infections in the central nervous system.
With numerous recalls just in the past two years (some low-risk and some high-risk), poultry is not always the safest. Of course, you could say a lot of mass-produced foods, even vegetables, aren’t always safe. Yet, the overwhelming problem of food safety tends to appear with meat products, especially chicken. Why is that? It has to do with the way chickens are raised for slaughter.
Most mass-produced chickens (broiler or egg-laying) live in unbearable conditions. Most are cramped in battery cages with other hens, and they have no room to perch or spread their wings. They walk in their own feces, rip their feathers on the wire of cages, suffer leg deformities like bumblefoot from walking on wire floors, suffer broken bones because of a high-calorie diet that fattens them up too quickly, and even attack other chickens out of misery and agitation. With so much ammonia release, feces build-up and corn-fed diets, these chickens are subject to many strains of bacteria, which explains the increased use of antibiotics in their feed. When strains of Salmonella are resistant to drugs, though, we will see people infected by this disease. On top of that, when U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors check the quality of poultry, one inspector will check up to 35 birds per minute. That’s fewer than two seconds per bird. Maybe they don’t need a whole lot of time to look for patterns of bad poultry, but it still seems a short amount of time for inspecting food that thousands of people will eat.
Although chicken has some draws in terms of low fat content and versatility in the kitchen, understanding its disadvantages in safety might help people keep it off their plate and replace poultry with plant-based foods, which ultimately are healthier and more nutrient dense than most animal products.
Benjamin Sylvester is the president of the Drexel Animal Welfare Group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Moo Over This” publishes biweekly.