By Karen Davis, PhD
Many people have been switching from red meat to chicken, believing chicken to be a healthier alternative. However, chicken is far from being a healthy food. For one thing, chicken is not low in fat. Light, skinless chicken derives about 18 percent of calories from fat. Skinless roast dark meat chicken is 32 percent fat.1 According to The George Washington University Health Plan, "Three ounces of lean top round has five grams of fat, whereas the same amount of roasted chicken thigh has 13 grams of fat. Even without the skin, nine grams of fat remain." 2
Like all meat, chicken is permeated by inherent fat – you can't cut it away. Chicken contains artery- clogging saturated fat. The cholesterol content of chicken is comparable to that of beef, about 25 milligrams per ounce.3 These levels are similar because the "the cell membranes in all muscles, regardless of species, have cholesterol inside the membrane."4
Cholesterol is mainly in the lean portions of meat.5 The saturated fats that permeate these portions raise cholesterol by stimulating the liver to make more cholesterol. Thus, even "lean" meats including poultry have significant amounts of saturated fat in addition to cholesterol. By contrast, plants have no cholesterol.6
In addition to fat and cholesterol, food poisoning is a major problem. According to Consumer Reports, "It's believed that fewer than 5 percent of food-poisoning cases are recognized and reported."7 The United Nations World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, "the reported incidence of foodborne diseases represents less than 10%, or maybe even less than 1% of the real incidence."8 The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] reported that the number of cases in outbreaks of illness caused by chicken tripled between 1988 and 1992.9
A report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service states: "Microbial pathogens [pathogens are microorganisms that cause disease including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi] in food cause between 6.5 million and 33 million cases of human illness and up to 9,000 deaths each year in the United States. Over 40 different foodborne pathogens are believed to cause human illness. The annual cost of human illness caused by seven foodborne pathogens for which we have estimates ranges between $5.6 billion and $9.4 billion. Meat and poultry are the primary sources."10
The report states that "Foods most likely to carry pathogens are high-protein, nonacid foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and eggs. . . . Farm livestock and poultry infected with microbial pathogens may expose other animals in a herd or flock by excreting pathogens, pathogen cysts, or larvae."11
Of the foodborne illnesses that are confirmed and reported to the CDC, over 90 percent are attributed to bacteria.12 Nine major foodborne pathogens cause human illness in the United States, including eight bacteria and one parasite: Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium perfringens, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella, Yersinia, and Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite). Poultry is specifically identified as a major source of Campylobacter jejuni or coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia, and Staphylococcus aureus. Chicken and turkey gravies are specifically identified, along with meat, meat stews, meat pies, and beef, as a major source of Clostridium perfringens.13
In a recent study of store-bought chickens in the U.S., including "free-range" and "premium," Consumer Reports found harmful bacteria in 71 percent: campylobacter in 63 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 16 percent. Eight percent of chickens had both campylobacter and salmonella.14 According to Consumer Reports, "One in 20 birds were nearly spoiled, and even a fresh bird is not necessarily free of disease-causing bacteria. . . . The U.S. Department of Agriculture seal, which certifies a chicken as free from visible signs of disease, is no guarantee of cleanliness."15
Salmonellosis is a bacterial infection of the intestinal tract causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, chills, weakness, and exhaustion. If the bacteria penetrate the intestinal tissue and enter the blood, Salmonella can colonize other tissues, causing septicemia (blood poisoning), meningitis, osteomyelitis, and even death. Like Campylobacter, Shigella, or Yersinia, Salmonella can cause chronic joint diseases, such as arthritis. According to the Agricultural Research Service, "an infection in the gastrointestinal tract by Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, or Yersinia bacteria can somehow lead to inflammation of an organ or joint that is far removed from the site of infection."16
Campylobacteriosis. According to Food Chemical News, "Campylobacter jejuni/coli topped the list of pathogenic organisms found on broiler carcasses in the final report on the Food Safety and Inspection Service's microbiological baseline data collection program for broiler chickens." Researchers found Campylobacter jejuni/coli on 1,144 (88.2%) of 1,297 birds collected from federally inspected slaughter plants between July 1994 and June 1995.17 In addition to being the leading bacterial cause of foodborne illness in the United States, responsible for an estimated 2 million to 8 million cases of illness a year and 200 to 800 deaths, Campylobacter has been linked to a paralytic disease that can cause fatal nerve damage known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. According to The New York Times, "there are about 5,000 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome a year and researchers say that 20 to 40 percent of them follow a campylobacter infection."18
Symptoms of campylobacteriosis include cramps, chills, "horrible pain," diarrhea and fever. The digestive tract takes about two weeks to recover.19 Antibiotic treatment for campylobacteriosis is losing effect because of the increasing resistance of campylobacter to the fluoroquinolone class of antibiotics used to treat the disease. According to the Minnesota Health Department, "Since 1995, with the licensing of fluoroquinolones for use in chickens, levels of drug-resistant campylobacter in humans has gone up dramatically."20
Poultry feed contains poultry and other animal products – bones, feathers, blood, offal, manure, restaurant grease, fishmeal, slaughterhouse condemnations, and other diseased animal parts.21 Poultry feed- -"animal protein" – has long been identified as a primary source of salmonella contamination,22 and poultry waste-products have been linked to congestive heart and lung failure in chickens.23 Not only are sick birds shipped directly to consumers;24 animals who die of diagnosed diseases before slaughter are fed to the chickens people eat, along with other animals who died of unknown causes.25 Perdue and other poultry producers refuse to tell the actual composition of poultry feed, taking refuge from disclosure in government protected "propriety information" that "is not disclosed publicly."26
Poultry Digest summarized the important fact that "feeds are fed to animals which are frequently raised in herds or flocks comprised of thousands of animals so that the health of individual animals is not possible. They do not communicate complaints about feeds in any known human language and are exposed to various management stresses which can influence susceptibility to infection or colonization with organisms such as salmonellae. They are exposed to numerous other sources of contamination, and are generally monitored for contamination infrequently."27
According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, the cost – of-illness method of computing the costs of foodborne illnesses underestimates the enormous social costs of pain and suffering. Meanwhile, "The proportion of the population that is highly susceptible to microbial foodborne illness is growing, largely due to the aging of the U.S. population and to the spread of chronic diseases (such as AIDS) that suppress the immune system."28 In addition, officials say "the number of children with severe food allergies is rising."29
The billions of birds that are hatched, raised, shipped, slaughtered, processed, and further processed (made into nuggets, deli items, chicken pies, sausages, "lean cuisines," etc.) to meet the demands of domestic and global markets and facilitate the government commitment to world trade vastly increases the spread of pathogens and other health problems along the way. First alive, then dead, the birds and their processed bodies travel, are mixed, and sit for extended periods under varying temperatures at various locations from the hatchery to the supermarket. The Washington Post notes that "Many production methods, such as shipping crowded crates of birds from the farm to the slaughterhouse, can exacerbate the spread of organisms such as campylobacter and salmonella"; and the "globalization of our larder increases the opportunity for mishandling." According to a Cornell University specialist, We're getting "foods produced in areas we know less about, and are not able to monitor as closely."30 International Food Hygiene, writing about the recall of 25 million pounds of contaminated Hudson beef in August 1997 in the United States, points out that "traceability" of ground-up meat – beef, poultry, etc. – "has been hindered by the widely used practice of recycling of nonused product."31
If chicken were produced less unwholesomely and hazardously it would not be a cheap product. Most people could not afford to eat chicken except on special occasions. As noted in Broiler Industry, "The cost to the consumer would be enormous." The article claims that "the cost of eliminating salmonella from flocks and raw finished product may force the price of poultry to increase to the point that poultry must be imported from less expensive sources"32(like Mexico, South America, or Asia). The issue was characterized in 1987 by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, who said, "we know more about controlling salmonella than we are willing to implement because of the cost factor."33
Consumers can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of food poisoning by taking elaborate kitchen precautions; however, many pathogens cannot be killed by cooking or refrigeration, and small human error or prior health problems can lead to serious illness, even death.34 It is probable that many people are unaware of, or are unable to implement, the intricacies of "safe food handling" of chicken and other animal products that are now being outlined in the food sections of the newspaper and indicated on some TV commercials by companies taking advantage of the disease risks identified with bringing store-bought poultry into the house.
The "thorough cooking" that is being urged to reduce pathogens on poultry can also be dangerous. According to Good Medicine, "It has long been known that cooked red meat contains cancer-causing heterocyclic amines, which form as the meat is heated. But a surprising new report from the National Cancer Institute shows that oven-broiled, pan-fried, or grilled/barbecued chicken carries an even bigger load of these carcinogens than does red meat. And the more you cook it, the worse it gets. A well-done hamburger contains 33 ng/g [ng = nanogram = 1 billionth part of a gram] of the carcinogen PhIP, and a well-done grilled steak has about 30 ng/g, but grilled chicken reached fully 480 ng/g (S R Rothman, et al., Cancer Research Vol. 55, 1995:4516-9)."
Good Medicine continues, "For those who hoped chicken was 'health food,' the cholesterol content of beef and chicken is actually the same and their fat content is not much different. Carcinogens, if anything, are more concentrated in many cooked chicken products. All this makes vegetarian choices look better and better."35
- With the exception of E.coli O157:H7, meat carrying disease-microbes is not considered adulterated.36
- The USDA does not have the authority to recall contaminated meat or to regulate farms. Chickens contaminated with Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other invisible disease organisms are sold to consumers. There is no "farm to table regulation."37 Regulations apply only to federally-inspected slaughterhouses, which is only one phase of the production process. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations: Animals and Animal Products allows feces-contaminated birds to be washed off and birds with tumors and many other disease manifestations to be sold after cutting off or cutting out the visible disease site.38
- The amount of Salmonella in a chicken isn't tested for and there is no agreement on what amount causes food poisoning.39
- There are no standards or tests for Campylobacter, the most prevalent chicken-borne pathogen. "Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, says such tests are too expensive."40
- The food-label term "natural" does "not relate to how the chicken was fed, raised, slaughtered, handled, or packed." Apart from "fed," the same is true of the term "organic."41
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antibiotics are the basis of the poultry industry. For example, the March 18, 1998 Federal Register announced FDA approval of "a new animal drug application filed by Hoechst Roussel Vet, Warren, N.J., that provides for using approved single ingredient Type A medicated articles to make Type C medicated broiler feeds containing narasin, bambermycins and roxarsone."42
- In contrast to antibiotics, drugs, and vaccines, as of May 1998, no hormone applications for use in commercial-level poultry have been FDA-approved since the agency's withdrawal of the cancer-causing hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the 1950s, when "residues of DES were detected in poultry skin, liver, and kidneys."43 However, hormone approval could occur at any time and hormones may be being used illegally as well as in poultry breeding stock.
- No federal regulations require a "sell-by-date" on chicken packages or products. The consumer has no way of knowing how long ago the chicken was killed and then sat around in various processing plants, trucks, loading docks, or in the meat case.44 If not sold directly to consumers, spoiled, rancid birds and used cooking grease can go back into the food chain in the form of livestock and poultry feed as well as into pet food.
- Historically, royalty used perfume instead of washing. We disguise the smell of death with flowers and deodorizers at funerals and at the food store. Methods of dealing with filthy chicken houses, sick birds, rancid and contaminated products mask the conditions while increasing the load of substances the birds, poultry workers, consumers, and the environment must cope with, including antibiotics, chlorine, microbial and antimicrobial sprays, and irradiation.45
The chickens one buys at the supermarket lived and breathed, day in, day out, in excrement – abnormal excrement at that. Because of their terrible diet, their wastes "contain more protein, organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other material known to cause pollution problems than do the wastes of animals on normal diets."46 In addition to the solid excrement on the floor, the birds are forced to breathe excretory ammonia fumes throughout their growing lives. These poisoned gases permeate the air, rising from the decomposing uric acid in the accumulated droppings in the chicken houses. They penetrate egg shells. They enter the birds' airways and immune system, inviting salmonella and other pathogens to colonize and spread.47 The droppings themselves contain pathogens, medication residues, cysts and larvae, and metals such as copper, arsenic, and zinc.48
2. What's the skinny on chicken? (poster), The George Washington University Health Plan, Washington DC, 1997.
3. N D Barnard, MD, The Power of Your Plate, Summertown TN: Book Publishing Co, 1990, 20.
4. Ostrich Meat Industry Development, Texas A&M University, 1994.
5. Barnard, 20.
6. Barnard, 20.
7. Consumer Reports March 1998:12.
8. Foodborne illnesses said to be under-reported, Feedstuffs Aug 18, 1997:1.
9. Consumer Reports, March 1998:12.
10. J C Buzby & T Roberts, ERS Estimates U.S. Foodborne Disease Costs, FoodReview (USDA) May-Aug 1995:37.
11. Buzby & Roberts, 37.
12. Buzby & Roberts, 37.
13. D Stanley, Arthritis From Foodborne Bacteria? Agricultural Research (USDA) Oct 1996:16. Buzby & Roberts, 38, 39.
14. Consumer Reports, 13.
15. Consumer Reports, 13.
16. Stanley, 16.
17. Food Chemical News June 17, 1996:7.
18. M Burros, Health Concerns Mounting Over Bacteria in Chicken, The New York Times Oct 20, 1997:Front Page.
19. B J Bashin, Who's Guarding the Henhouse, Eating Well Dec 1990:44.
20. Burros, 29.
21. National Research Council, Nutrient Requirements of Poultry, 9th ed. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1994. Feedstuffs, Jan 14, 1991:27; Nov 25, 1996:5.
22. F T Jones & K E Richardson, Fallacies exist in current understanding of salmonella, Feedstuffs, Jan 22, 1996:1, 22-25.
23. R J Julian et al., Effect of poultry by-product meal on pulmonary hypertension, right ventricular failure and ascites in broiler chickens, Canadian Veterinary Journal 33 (June 1992):385.
24. S Bronstein, Chicken, How Safe? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution May 26, 1991:C1. Consumer Reports March 1998.
25. S Blakeslee, Fear of Disease Prompts New Look at Rendering, The New York Times March 11, 1997:C1, C11. J. Williams, The Inhumanity of the Animal People, Harpers Aug 1997:61.
26. C Maddrey, Perdue Farms, letter to J Beckham, July 8, 1997.
27. F T Jones, HACCP plans for feed mills, Poultry Digest July 1997: 12.
28. Buzby & Roberts, 41.
29. D Nakamura, Preschooler's Food Allergies Limit Menu for Entire Class, The Washington Post Aug 29, 1997:D1.
30. C Sugarman, Food Scares: Just a Hot Topic Or Are They On the Rise? The Washington Post Dec 10, 1997:E5.
31. Hudson Foods – lessons to be learnt? International Food Hygiene Vol 8, No 6 (1997):13.
32. S M Russell, The FSIS Pathogen Reduction Proposal, Broiler Industry Feb 1996:24.
33. W H Dubbert, Efforts to Control Salmonella in Meat and Poultry, Third Poultry Symposium Proceedings (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1987), 142.
34. Buzby and Roberts, 38.
35. N D Barnard, MD, Foods Against Cancer: An Update, Good Medicine (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), Spring 1996:16.
36. N Fox, Safe Food? Not Yet, The New York Times Jan. 30, 1997.
37. Title 9 Federal Code of Regulations: Animals and Animal Products.
38. 9 CFR.
39. Consumer Reports March 1998:17.
40. Consumer Reports March 1998: 17.
41. Consumer Reports March 1998:17.
42. Three-way combination cleared for broilers, Feedstuffs April 13, 1998:17.
43. L A Grassie, Center for Veterinary Medicine, FDA, letter to the author, July 15, 1996.
44. Consumer Reports March 1998:17.
45. G A Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse (NY: Prometheus Books, 1997), 287. Consumer Reports March 1998:12- 18.
46. J Mason & P Singer, Animal Factories (NY: Crown Publishers, 1990), 120-121.
47. F S Carlile, Ammonia in Poultry Houses: A Literature Review, World's Poultry Science Journal 40(1984):99-113. K Davis, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Summertown TN: Book Publishing Co., 1996):96-98.
48. Mason & Singer, 122.