So is chicken healthy? When you see how the majority of birds are raised in the United States, you may question where you've been sourcing your usual chicken dinner.
Until very recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed arsenic—a known cancer-causer—in chicken feed. And guess what? When the birds eat it, the heavy metal winds up in the meat you eat. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future analysis found that 70 percent of the samples tested exceeded levels of arsenic that the FDA considers safe. The kicker? Cooking the meat actually increases levels. Many nonorganic chicken producers turned to arsenic for years to fatten up their chickens faster and to improve the color of the animals' meat. In fall 2013, the FDA finally agreed to withdraw its approvals for three of the four arsenic-based feed additives given to chickens (and turkeys.)
2. Dangerous Litter Legacy
Chicken litter—a mix of chicken poop, feathers, and bedding—could be contaminating other parts of the food supply if the litter comes from concentrated animals-feeding operations (CAFOs) that feed their chickens arsenic. Rice farmers in Arkansas actually filed a lawsuit against drug maker Pfizer and Tyson Foods over alleged contamination. The rice farmers had bought the arsenic-laced litter for use as a fertilizer.
3. Terrifying Transit
Ever pass one of those chicken trucks hauling stacks and stacks of live animals in crates? They're headed for slaughter, but Johns Hopkins researchers have found that the trucks hauling the doomed chickens are leaving something behind.
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health, researchers found that cars driving behind open-crate poultry trucks headed to the slaughterhouse were contaminated with harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains like MRSA.
Those chickens can be laden with dangerous pathogens that can outsmart the most important human drugs because concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs, aka factory farms), routinely feed low levels of antibiotics to animals to speed their growth. The constant use helps bacteria learn how to evade the drugs, and can even pass those resistance genes on to other types of bacteria. Scary!
4. Frightful Fumes
An Environmental Integrity Project analysis of recent studies found that the 10 largest chicken- and egg-producing U.S. states release more than 700 million pounds of ammonia a year—that's more than all nonagricultural industries combined. The irritating substance can cause burns and eye, skin, throat, and lung irritation. There's more than just toxic fumes coming from chicken CAFOs, though: A 2011 study found that flies collected near poultry CAFOs also carried antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
5. Unnatural Growth Rates
The incredible speed with which chickens on industrial farms gain weight (thanks in part to the breed industrial farms prefer, in addition to the antibiotics and arsenic in the feed) is equivalent to raising a child to weigh 500 pounds by the age of 10, according to the animal welfare site Counting Animals.
6. Cruel Quarters
Chickens love to run, jump, sunbathe, and socialize. Those things are possible on pasture-based farms, but not so much for chickens living in industrial "farm" warehouses. Egg-laying hens are arguably the most tortured farm animals in America. Crates of hens are often stacked to the ceiling, and hens live their entire two- to three-year life in a space roughly the size of a letter-size piece of paper.
More and more fast-food and food manufacturers are moving toward cage-free eggs. Don't confuse that description with happy hens running about outdoors, though. Cage free usually still means the chickens are in warehouses, although they are able to move about more freely and exhibit more natural chicken behavior, which undoubtedly lowers their stress. The gold standard for nutritious eggs and happy chickens? Eggs from pasture-raised hens that are also fed organic grain—these eggs contain much higher levels of brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins. But expect to pay more. It costs more to raise animals in a high-quality way.
7. Green Lights for Bacteria
While it's illegal to sell beef contaminated with dangerous E. coli 157:H7, it's perfectly OK to sell salmonella-contaminated chicken. That's problematic because the Emerging Pathogens Institute recently ranked Salmonella as the food poisoning bacteria with the biggest public health burden. Consumer Union tests routinely show that as much as two-thirds of grocery-store chicken contains bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics.
8. Pain-Causing Poultry
A 2012 study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases looked at women suffering from urinary tract infections and found that in 71 percent of the cases, the E. coli bacteria collected from the women matched the type of E. coli found in supermarket chicken. When looking at E. coli from factory-farm slaughterhouse chickens, the UTI bacteria matched nearly 80 percent of the time. Researchers said the UTI infections could surface as long as six months after eating contaminated chicken.
9. Doped-Up Chickens
Testing the feathers of U.S.-sold chicken imported from China, researchers found active ingredients from human antidepressant drugs like Prozac, caffeine, and antibiotics banned for use in poultry.
10. Not-So-Appetizing Nuggets
The horror doesn't end on factory farms. Where they leave off, the fast-food industry picks it back up. A recent University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) analysis of chicken-nugget ingredients found that chicken isn't necessary the main component, especially the white meat portion many people believe they're eating. Dissecting nuggets from two different national fast-food chains, researchers found some are composed of about 50 percent skeletal muscle, with the rest consisting of fat, blood vessels, and nerves. (Ack!) Bone fragments and connective tissue were also detected. True story? These findings even shocked the researcher.
"What has happened is that some companies have chosen to use an artificial mixture of chicken parts rather than low-fat chicken white meat, batter it up and fry it, and still call it chicken," says Richard deShazo, MD, UMMC distinguished professor of medicine, pediatrics, and immunology. "It is really a chicken by-product high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat that is a very unhealthy choice. Even worse, it tastes great and kids love it and it is marketed to them."
Still hungry? It's clear to see that turning small farms into huge industrial warehouse models that house up to 2 million birds has not been a boon to either animal welfare or human health. We live in an age in which it often takes months to track the source of a recall. If you want to opt out of this factory farming system, look for eggs and chicken from small-scale local farmers who use organic methods and raise their animals on grass. Buying USDA-certified organic at the grocery store is another option, ensuring the chickens had more space and ate a diet free of arsenic, antibiotics, GMOs, and pesticides. (It doesn't guarantee the birds lived outside, though—there are some mega, industrial organic farms.) For local options, visit LocalHarvest.org. Animal Welfare Approved standards call for animals to be raised out on pasture and antibiotics to be used only if an animal is sick and needs it; Certified Humane limits the use of antibiotics to only when an animal is sick and really needs it.
For more info on decoding egg carton claims, read The Truth about Your Eggs.