13 May 2019

“Dirty Chicken,” The Atlantic, Nov. 1990 Prompts Letter from United Poultry Concerns President Karen Davis, Feb. 1991

The November 1990 issue of The Atlantic published a scathing Public Health Report called “Dirty Chicken” by Gene Bruce, Volume 266, No. 5, pp. 32-49. Unfortunately this excellent report is not online; yet it remains one of the most informative reports available on how poultry slaughterhouse conditions contribute to contaminated birds, antibiotic resistance, and human illness.

Summary: “If consumers knew of the filth in many poultry-processing plants and the likelihood that the chicken they buy is contaminated or diseased, many USDA inspectors say, they would think twice before buying it. Has a move toward industry self-inspection meant that a USDA stamp of approval is no longer reassuring?”

The Feb. 1991 issue of The Atlantic published two letters to the editor from poultry industry representatives ranting against the “Dirty Chicken” report along with Karen Davis’s letter and Gene Bruce’s Reply to poultry industry critics.

KAREN DAVIS’S PUBLISHED LETTER, The Atlantic, Feb. 1991, p. 4:

Gene Bruce’s article on poultry contamination and related human health problems is extremely informative. The fact that salmonella and other food-poisoning bacteria are continuously being recycled through the commercial food system cannot be over-emphasized. Commercially manufactured poultry feed is loaded with poultry byproducts, including excrement. Another fact is that the routine mixing of antibiotics, to promote growth and control disease, has caused the evolution of “super salmonellae,” which are resistant or immune to antibiotics.

In addition, the stress imposed on birds by the modern poultry operation may prevent them from coping efficiently with disease organisms, including food-borne infectious bacteria. One reason may be that, as studies have shown, normal, short-term stress produces corticoid hormonal responses that enable a bird to cope with the stressor. However, persistent stress can impair the bird’s immune function. The chronic environmental stress imposed on birds in modern poultry production is exacerbated by genetic selection for rapid growth. Thus in broiler chickens, selected for muscle tissue – that is, meat – the ability to produce antibodies is very low, because the bird’s biological resources are directed toward growth at the expense of other body functions.

The modern poultry enterprise is extraordinarily complicated and, I should add, intensely inhumane.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
Potomac, Md.


Some industry spokespeople claim that I relied heavily on a small cast of industry critics, many of them labor connected. On the contrary, my research net was unusually wide and far-reaching. I interviewed more than a hundred people with expertise in key aspects of poultry processing and its implications for public health. Among this group were poultry scientists, enteric-disease specialists, veterinarians, microbiologists, food-safety experts from the Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, private universities, state and local health departments, and consumer-advocacy groups, and held two lengthy interviews with the chief administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Most of the broiler companies I approached referred me to the National Broiler Council, which referred me to its technical adviser, whom I interviewed. If that interview is almost two years old, that is because I worked on the article for two years. I tried to arrange on-site visits and interviews at three of the top ten broiler companies – Tyson, Holly Farms, and Perdue – but all refused my requests.

I understand why industry representatives would be concerned to have a chance to comment on negative statements made about their product. However, I did give them a chance to comment, and they did comment. If this were not so, their letters would add new information to that presented in the article. They do not.

Gene Bruce, author of “Dirty Chicken.” The Atlantic, November 1990.