Thirty years ago in the 1980s, a visitor at a farm animal sanctuary where I was volunteering, told me, “I don’t eat red meat anymore, but I still eat chicken and turkey.” After decades of animal rights activism, I still hear this, and I bet you do too.
Most people consider poultry a “healthy” food compared with red meat. The American Cancer Society is one of many voices of influence advising people concerned about healthy eating to choose poultry as an alternative to red meat.
You’d think this refrain would be drowned out by all the bad news about foodborne bacteria in chicken products especially, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the poultry industry can rely on Consumer Reports – which in 2014 reported that 97 percent of 300 chicken breasts analyzed were contaminated with dangerous bacteria – and other mainstream media outlets to conclude their coverage of the latest outbreaks by reassuring people that “thorough cooking” of the contaminated flesh and the “fecal soup” on their kitchen counters safeguards them from getting sick. Yet a study by the National Cancer Institute under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that broiled, fried, grilled, and barbecued chicken, thoroughly cooked, can carry an even bigger load of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines than red meat.
Poultry Contamination is Rampant
Food poisoning kills 3,000 Americans each year and makes 48 million sick, and poultry products are the main cause says Michael Greger, M.D., in Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. Indeed, the number of food poisoned people is actually much higher – one confirmed case of Salmonella enteritidis represents 38 unreported cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control – since many sufferers do not report their illness. Many people with chronic gastrointestinal ailments consider bouts of bacterial “stomach flu” – excruciating abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills, and exhaustion – to be normal.
According to Consumer Reports’ Dirty Chickens, Campylobacter and Salmonella are the “leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease.” Scientists call Campylobacter “currently the most significant pathogen that can be transmitted from animals to humans through meat . . . causing a massive number of infections and inflammation.” Campylobacter and Salmonella are particularly linked to the consumption and handling of poultry products, according to World Poultry’s Diagnosing dysbiosis in broilers. To these, add Listeria and E. coli infections.
Chicken and Turkey are Not Low Fat
Contrary to what many people think, poultry is not a low fat, low cholesterol food. Like all meat, poultry is permeated with artery-clogging saturated fat that can’t be cut away. And the cholesterol content of chicken or turkey is comparable to that of red meat – about 25 milligrams per ounce. In 1988, the National Research Council explained, in Designing Foods: Animal Product Options in the Marketplace, that genetic selection for heavy chickens had resulted in birds whose systems could not properly synthesize the high-calorie diets they were being forced to eat. The excess food was deposited as lipids and chickens developed obesity along with the grossly enlarged breast muscle tissue that motivates turning a one-month-old chicken weighing barely a pound into a chicken weighing nearly five pounds by that age.
Genetically Modified Animals
The manipulation of chickens involves genetic engineering, a sedentary existence coupled with overfeeding, and massive amounts of antibiotics to boost the birds’ weight artificially through water retention and microfloral disruption. An investigation by Reuters published in 2014 showed that “Major U.S. poultry farms are administering antibiotics to their flocks far more pervasively than regulators realize, posing a potential risk to human health.”
A potential risk is that antibiotics used to treat sick people – who are often suffering from bacterial infections they got from eating and handling poultry and egg products – are increasingly ineffective as bacteria become ever more resistant to antibiotics. And while antibiotics are designed to treat bacterial infections, too many antibiotics can weaken the human immune system as well as the immune systems of the birds, increasing a person’s susceptibility to food poisoning and other illnesses and increasing the inability of overstressed birds to handle the pathogenic load.
Inside of a Chicken Factory Farm
Living on the Eastern Shore of the United States, boasted by poultry agribusiness as the “birthplace of the broiler industry” in the 1920s, I’ve been inside many chicken houses of which there are thousands in this rural region of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, known as the Delmarva Peninsula, where at any given time a half a billion chickens are locked in squalor.
Unlatch the door of the typical 500-foot-long chicken house, and a blanket of sepia-white baby birds not making a peep stare at you through the dark haze of nauseating toxic gases and floating debris of feathers, skin particles, and pathogens. Though just a few weeks old, most chickens bred for the meat industry are too painfully lame to stand up normally, let alone walk, due to their forced rapid growth rate and heavy bodies that feel when you pick one up like a sad sack of wet cement. With the added stress of no natural sunlight or exercise, their joints are too soft to carry their weight. Falsely marketed as “healthy,” these birds are imprisoned in alien, diseased and dysfunctional bodies in total confinement buildings within a global system of confinement and abuse for which the word hellish seems inadequate.
It isn’t only the toxic waste environment; pathologies have been bred into the birds’ genes through the manipulative process that poultry researchers call “human controlled evolution.” According to an article in the journal International Hatchery Practice, the chickens that people eat exhibit “a variety of health problems involving muscular, digestive, cardiovascular, integumentary, skeletal, and immune systems” providing “solid evidence that anatomical anomalies have become deep-rooted in the phenotype of the contemporary broiler chicken.”
I have come to know these birds well through decades of sanctuary care. Five years before founding United Poultry Concerns in 1990, I rescued a crippled and abandoned “broiler” chicken named Viva, who I like to say, started it all because of how deeply she and her sweetness seeped into me back when I was considering starting an advocacy organization for farmed animals. Though burdened with a manmade body, there was nothing inferior about her personally. Viva was expressive, responsive, communicative, affectionate, and alert. She already had a voice including her soft little heart melting trills of contentment. I wish that everyone who thinks of chicken as just food whether “healthy” or sickening could hear those trills and feel the beating pulse that I felt inside her body each time I held her close.
Featured image source: FusionTV