The APCs of ‘What is Wrong with my Chicken Dinner?’

Today’s blog starts to touch on some of the reasons that people are turning way from the chicken found at the grocery store and seeking out alternative sources. Many consumers have health concerns based on what the animals are eating. Others might have concerns about the various additives in their chicken. A very large number are concerned about the life the chicken lives prior to its death. All of these are excellent reasons to do a little research regarding what is going into your chicken and where you can get a healthier happier chicken for your dinner plate.

So today, we are going to give a quick overview of some of the reasons you may want to look into buying your chicken from a trusted local farmer.

Let’s start with the As (It’s a very good place to start):

  • Arsenic: If you are an old movie buff, you would be familiar with Arsenic and Old Lace and how well that worked out for the lonely gentleman who came to tea. Anyone who has taken biology will remember that arsenic is a poison to much of the animal kingdom and can be carcinogenic. There are two variations: Organic and Inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is arsenic in its pure form. Organic is arsenic that has bonded with carbon. This is a dummy down version, I know, but it gets the point across. Pfizer came up with a great little additive by the name of Roxarsone which is this organic arsenic back in 1944. They then sold it as a supplement and chicken feed was the most popular item for its inclusion. Fast forward to 2011 and again in 2015,  the FDA announced that in a study of chickens treated with Roxarsone they found that the organic arsenic had become inorganic arsenic and could be found in the commonly eaten parts. This was contrary to the belief that the organic arsenic would remain organic throughout its digestion and be eliminated by natural means.

Yes, arsenic is naturally occurring but do you intentionally want to increase your exposure? That’s like saying that cyanide is naturally occurring in apple seeds and then deliberately eating a whole bunch of seeds. (FYI: You would need some thing like 2 cups of seeds (about 100 apples REALLY fast) to die of cyanide poisoning.)

So what was the perceived benefit of adding organic arsenic into chicken feed? As a grower of chickens, one thing we all worry about is the chance of our chicks getting coccidiosis and dying. There are a number of preventatives, but the best is making sure that the chicks are on CLEAN bedding that is constantly being changed so they do not get bored and start eating each others poop. (There is a reason they are call ‘Fowl’) Many chicken raisers use medicated feed for their babies, but stop after about the first 6 weeks since that is usually when they start going on grass. It is ALSO approved for weight gain, feed efficiency, and pigmentation. You are getting that pretty pink color thanks to arsenic. I say that sarcastically, but it is not far from the truth.

The sad truth is that through better living conditions the number one reason for using Roxarsone would become moot. Coccidiosis thrives in poorly ventilated, damp, dirty, and overcrowded situations. If food, water, and bedding are not changed regularly and repeatedly they become breeding grounds for the bacteria. If chickens are raised in a healthy environment, they really do not need animal drugs.

Lots of small chicken raising farms get specially milled food for their chickens that do not contain arsenic. They also use chicken tractors which allow chickens to move to new grass once or twice a day greatly decreasing their chances of eating their own feces. Coccidiosis averted.

  • Antibiotics: No one likes the idea that that the animal they eat could have been sick so we want sick birds to be treated. Where the commercial chicken world crosses the line is when they use antibiotics for the entire flock as part of their growth regime rather than to stave off illness.This is called sub-therapeutic use.

Why use antibiotics? Well, chickens are given low levels of antibiotics throughout their short lives they will gain up to 3% more weight than an untreated chicken. That makes a huge difference when you are trying to get your chickens to market weight as fast as possible. The problem is that the bacteria in their bodies becomes so used to the low dose of antibiotics that it becomes resistant. The humans who then eat the chicken ingest the antibiotic resistant bacteria and become infected themselves. This means that the antibiotics designed to kill the bug no longer are effective.

The use of sub-therapeutic use has been drawing fire for a long time. Concerns grew to such a level that both Canada and the European Union have banned its use. However, the USA still continues the practice citing that to remove it from the regime would too greatly increase the possibility of disease in the chickens AND increase the purchase price. Goodness knows we would not want to pay more for our chicken since what are the chances of us needing to get treated for salmonella?

This is why it is SO important to purchase chicken that is antibiotic free. Your body will certainly thank you for it later and your grandchildren will thank you when the antibiotics they need still do the trick.

The P:

  • Plumpling: Most of us think of ‘plump’ as an adjective and not a verb, but the chicken industry is constantly inventing new things. Plumping is the act of injecting saline, chicken stock, or other additives into a chicken carcass to make it look bigger and juicer. There can be so much plumping done that it can increase the body weight by up to 30%. That means that lovely roaster you just bought for your Sunday dinner…? 1/3 of what you paid for is nothing more than salt water. That eventually adds up over the year.

Below is a video of chickens being plumped.

If you are someone who has to watch their sodium intake, just an FYI, those injections can increase the sodium content of your chicken to upwards of 500%. As with the pink slime, they can still label your chicken as 100% natural since there is no standardize legal definition of ‘natural’. So as long as the things injected are technically natural, so is the chicken. Think back to the arsenic above. It is natural too.

You may ask yourself, why not just grow a plumper juicer chicken? That is because that would require more time and chicken feed to grow a fatter bigger chicken. Most of the chickens you eat are between 6-12 weeks old. That is not a lot of time to take a little fluff ball to dinner size. The faster the chicken gets to weight (even if that requires a little plumping), the faster the chicken business can get in another round of chicks.

This is why some people have a hard time going to their local farmers to buy chicken. The chickens do not appear as big or plump. That is because there is a balancing act between getting the chickens to a nice size and harvesting them for they start to get stringy and tough. However, even if it takes a little longer to reach a desirable weight, the difference in taste is well worth it.

The C:

  • CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations): The C actually comes with a few other letters attached. CAFOs were briefly touched on in The Culture of the Other White Meat, but the focus was mainly on the pork rather than the actual operation. CAFOs are interested in one thing. Raising the largest number of animals for the greatest possible profit. Remember real estate is money so most chicken operations are housed in HUGE sheds with as many chickens crammed in as possible. Most sheds contain any where between 20,000 – 30,000 chickens. This leaves an adult chicken with about 1 sq foot to live in IF they are lucky. These birds do not get outside. They do not see the sunshine. Fresh air? What’s that?

This is very different from the coop recommendations given for large birds who are allowed to forage during the day. They recommend that each bird should have a minimum of 4 sq feet which means a 4 x 8 foot coop is good for about 8 birds. If you are going to raise strictly indoor birds, the recommendation increases to at least 10 sq feet per bird and a 5 x 10 foot coop should only house 5 birds. These are just recommended minimums and like most animals, chickens are always happier with more space to roam.

One thing that is expressed over and over by experience chicken raisers is that you have to keep the bedding, food, and water clean. This means swishing out their water once a day, checking food levels, and when the coop gets even the slightest bit whiffy you need to throw in more pine shavings until it has that pine fresh scent. Chickens in CAFOs never get clean bedding in the 7 weeks they are packed in their sheds which is why you need animal drugs to prevent coccidiosis. People who go into the areas to do the daily check for dead birds have to wear respirators because the smell of ammonia can overwhelm a person and make them pass out. If the ventilation fans malfunction, the birds can all all die from asphyxiation.

Nothing about chicken CAFOs is healthy. Chickens there are overcrowded, fed feed and water that are laced with antibiotics and organic arsenic, and in conditions that humans cannot stand for more than a minute. Their very short lives are ones of misery.

Before you give up on ever eating chicken again consider looking for alternative options. Obviously we would love if everyone decided they wanted to have chicken from Firefly Farms since we are pretty proud of what we produce. After all, our birds are raised in chicken tractors, Humane Certified, fed organic feed that is soy free, and live happy chicken lives chasing bugs and scratching dirt. We realize that is not possible for everyone, but recommend that you do look for “Air Chilled”, “Organic”, and “Antibiotic Free” when you head to your grocery store. They will be more expensive, but think about the overall effect on your own health. You will be eating a better bird and having the direct benefit of its life. It might also shift the thinking of the CAFOs if they realize people are willing to pay a little more for a bird that lives a little more.