President Herbert Hoover, campaigning in the 1920s, promised Americans "a chicken in every pot." This wistful dream of 80 years ago is an abundant reality to most American families. Americans now consume an average of 73.6 pounds of poultry, including at least 60.4 pounds of chicken (the remainder mostly consisting of turkey), an increase of more than 100 percent since the 1970s. We also eat an average of 259 eggs per year — a number likely to increase as the American Heart Association has downgraded its formerly dire assessment of the impact of eggs on heart disease. While there may be health and environmental benefits in this growth, which largely represents a switch in diet from more resource-intensive and fat-rich red meats like beef and pork, modern methods of putting poultry products in every American pot are producing more than their fair share of health, environmental and social problems.
We explore here the very serious issues associated with large-scale, confined poultry operations, the source for most of the chicken, turkey and eggs sold in the U.S. today. There are alternatives, however, and before you buy your next chicken or pick up a box of eggs, consider your options. Use Label Lookup to help you find the poultry products that were raised with your health and the environment in mind.
Illness from contaminated food is a serious public health problem in the U.S. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting, severe exhaustion, and bloody stools; sometimes infections produce more serious, lasting health problems or even death.
While modern poultry and egg production practices may be lowering prices, they are also increasing the risks of illness from pathogen-tainted eggs and meat. An estimated 76-80 million cases of foodborne disease occur here annually, along with an estimated 5,020 fatalities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service estimates that meat and poultry sources of illness account for an estimated $4.5 to $7.5 billion in costs in the U.S. Poultry products, especially chicken, contribute the most to this problem, as they are the source of the majority of foodborne illnesses and deaths associated with animal products. And although rates have declined from their dizzying heights in the 1990's, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still considers egg-transmitted Salmonellosis enteritidis to be an "important public health problem."
Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a major public health crisis. Increasingly, bacteria are resistant to multiple antibiotics, leading to infections that are difficult to treat and sometimes impossible to cure, require longer and more expensive hospital stays, and are more likely to be fatal. At the same time, the development of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle. In some cases, there are now few or no antibiotics that work to treat drug resistant bacterial infections.
While improper use of antibiotics in the health care sector is contributing to the problem, organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize that the "overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animals" is a major source of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that affect humans, leading to infections that are harder to treat. Since the 1950s, it has become routine practice to add low levels of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy poultry, cattle, and swine to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The practice is now so common that according to the FDA, which regulates the use of antibiotics in food animals, 80 percent are used not in humans but in animals, and most of those — an estimated 83 percent — are given to healthy animals, not to treat the sick ones.
At this point, your average American chicken consumes four different antibiotics daily. The problem for people is that tetracycline, penicillin, erythromycin, and other antimicrobials important in human medicine are used extensively in today's livestock production, and organisms that infect humans are adapting, becoming resistant to these precious, effective disease-fighting tools. The FDA is convinced that for foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7, "...the most likely source of most antimicrobial resistance is use of antimicrobials in food producing animals."
This is a scary and expensive problem: researchers have estimated the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. at $26 billion. Medical professionals now believe that some Staphylococcus aureus strains have become resistant to antibiotic drugs because of livestock antibiotic use. More than one-third of all staph strains are resistant to vancomycin, considered the antibiotic of last resort. "If untreatable Staph should emerge, it would certainly close down hospitals," says Dr. Fred Angulo, medical epidemiologist at CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases.
As part of the solution to this potentially dire problem, both the CDC and WHO have called for ending agricultural use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that consumers would pay a mere $9.72 a year more for meat if nontherapeutic antibiotics were eliminated.
Dioxins and chlorine
The fats in meat are concentrated conveyors of one of the most toxic man-made pollutants known: dioxins. In its 2000 final draft reassessment of the health effects of dioxins, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that dioxins are potent toxins with potential to produce an array of adverse health effects in humans. The EPA report estimated that the average American's risk of contracting cancer from dioxin exposure may be as high as 1 in 1,000 — 1,000 times higher than the government's current "acceptable" standard of 1 in a million. Dioxins are also endocrine disruptors: substances that can interfere with the body's natural hormone signals. Dioxin exposure, moreover, can damage the immune system, and may affect reproduction and childhood development.
Once released into the air and water, dioxins freely disperse. These persistent compounds drift around the world, and make their way into the food chain when they land on plants or accompany a living organism’s drink. When ingested by animals or humans, dioxins accumulate in fatty tissue. As a result, over 95 percent of typical human exposure comes through dietary intake of animal fats such as meat, dairy and eggs, the EPA says.
Some poultry chill baths use chlorine or chlorine dioxide in the chill bath water, in an attempt to reduce pathogen loads. It is unproven but likely that some chlorine is absorbed by poultry along with the chill bath water that is absorbed. Consuming chlorine with water has health risks: chlorine, reacting with organic chemicals left in the water by soil and decaying vegetation, forms a group of chemicals called disinfection by-products (DBPs) or trihalomethanes (THMs). DBPs/THMs may be associated with 10,000 or more rectal and bladder cancers each year in the U.S., and are linked to pancreatic cancer as well. They may also cause major birth defects.
To control infections and increase weight gain, chickens are fed compounds containing arsenic, listed as a known carcinogen in the U.S. Department of Health's 9th Report on Carcinogens. Most is excreted and becomes part of chicken manure. This manure is piled into rows or used as fertilizers on fields. U.S. Geological Survey researchers have studied what happens to the arsenic produced by the Delmarva Peninsula chicken industry (on the eastern shore of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) and found that these farms contribute between 20 and 50 metric tons of arsenic to the environment annually.
Poultry houses attract many types of pest: lice, rodents, roaches, etc. Birds receive frequent doses of insecticides to combat these unwanted vermin. While there are legal limits set for pesticide residues in the poultry products obtained from these facilities, testing is infrequent.
The sheer volume of manure that factory farms generate transform it from a benign soil enhancer into a destructive water polluter. Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation's rivers and streams, according to the EPA. An estimated 195 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published in 2008 in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
Global warming, believed to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as flooding, is only going to exacerbate the problem for communities along the coast as well as along rivers and streams. Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, resulted in massive amounts of chicken waste washed into the Chesapeake Bay from burst and flooded lagoons, threatening fish and wildlife habitat.
Phosphorus concentrations in Pocomoke Sound (downstream from Maryland's Eastern Shore poultry region) have increased by more than 25 percent since 1985, according to EPA data, suffocating sea grasses that are vital habitat for fish and crabs. Runoff of chicken and hog waste from factory farms in Maryland and North Carolina also is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, killing millions of fish.
Runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated by many of the federal laws intended to prevent pollution and protect drinking water sources. The Clean Water Act of 1972 largely regulates only chemicals or contaminants that move through pipes or ditches, which means it does not typically apply to waste that is sprayed on a field and seeps into groundwater. As a result, many of the agricultural pollutants that contaminate drinking water sources are often subject only to state or county regulations. And those laws have failed to protect some residents living nearby.
Poultry farmers and plant workers
The increasingly consolidated chicken industry in America has resulted in poultry farmers having few and grim options. Farmers working through contracts with one of a handful of huge national poultry companies produce over 90 percent of U.S. poultry. Critics find these contracts reminiscent of indentured servitude: the farmers never actually own the birds, which are dropped off when young and picked up when ready to be slaughtered. Farmers usually must use the company's feed, and are charged at rates the company sets for inputs and services. They are paid, when the birds are picked up, according to a company-determined formula that is based on the number and weight of the birds deemed acceptable, minus incurred expenses. The companies sign only short-term contracts, and are free to choose other farmers once the brief contract expires. While it is increasingly difficult to learn the exact terms of contracts, contracts from the recent past have contained clauses requiring the farmer to surrender all rights to sue and that prohibit the farmer from joining with other growers into any association or union. Most contract poultry farmers earn poverty wages for their efforts; the chicken catchers they employ, unsurprisingly, earn poor wages and endure unhealthy air quality from ammonia, pesticides and particulates in the chicken houses.
Workers at poultry plants suffer one of the highest injury rates in the U.S. In spite of explosive productivity growth--from 143 to 190 birds processed per hour over the last 15 years--wages have fallen in the industry. Poultry companies have been indicted for defrauding their contract farmers and exploiting poultry plant workers.
It indeed takes a tough man to make an industrial chicken. Chickens and turkeys in factory farms are culled, bred, confined, and processed in order to maximize production--often at the expense of their comfort and needs. Industrial turkeys have been bred to have such abnormally large breasts that they can neither fly nor mate naturally, requiring a brutal insemination process. Both turkeys and chickens have their beaks singed or clipped to prevent pecking in the crowded pen conditions in which they are reared. Turkeys jostle against their neighbors, having less than three square feet each; chickens get less than a square foot.
Egg-laying hens have it the worst. They are packed into stacked cages - four or five per cage, without sufficient room to spread their wings or even, sometimes, to stand upright. As the quality of their muscles do not matter to anyone (they are sold for soup scrap at the end of their lives), they often do not receive any exercise. Most suffer from broken bones before the end of their lives. They are also starved in a process known as "forced molting," in order to enhance their egg productivity, which is not only painful and traumatic but damages their immune systems, resulting in more antibiotic use and a higher risk of Salmonella-infected eggs.
The same poor air quality that plagues chicken workers also harms poultry. Pesticides toxic to birds are routinely used in poultry houses. Millions of birds have been known to die during particularly hot conditions or due to equipment failure. Carcasses have been found piled up or buried in shallow pits, causing a public health hazard. Slaughterhouse killing procedures result in some live birds being dumped into boiling vats.
Be a smart shopper: choose your poultry products with care
Remember, though large scale, confined poultry operations remain the source for most of the chicken, turkey and eggs sold in the U.S., there are alternatives. Be a smart shopper and before buying your next chicken or putting that box of eggs in your cart, find out where and how they were produced and that you can trust the claims you see on the label. To help you sort the good claims from the bad, use Label Lookup, NRDC Smarter Living's searchable database, also available as an iPhone app. To learn more about how to shop for the planet, cook for your health and bring pleasure back to meal time, check out Smarter Living's Food Section. It's chock full of tools for shopping wisely and recipes for eating well.
This article was reprinted with permission from SmarterLiving.org.