5 Reasons to Think Twice About That Supermarket Chicken
What are the practices behind those chicken parts you're pulling out of the cooler at the supermarket? We've got the scoop, plus tips on how to find a more flavorful, healthful, ethical variety.
Americans are consuming more chicken than ever—a projected 91.7 pounds per capita in 2017, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It’s likely that your nearby supermarket dedicates more space to chickens than beef or pork, and offers a promotion nearly every week on different cuts. But what aren’t they telling you? We have the lowdown, along with options for finding chickens that will rock your world without the drawbacks. 1. Water Chilling Saps the Flavor
Ninety-nine percent (99%) of chickens sold in the US are water chilled. What does that mean and why does it matter? The USDA requires that all chickens be cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit within four hours of slaughter to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. The cheapest, easiest way to achieve this temperature is by submerging the chicken in a bath of ice-cold water mixed with chlorine or hydrogen peroxide.
This method causes the chicken to absorb 2-12% of its weight in water (and chemicals), diluting the taste. And don’t forget, the extra weight contributes to the sale price of the chicken. When you see that price per pound, you can calculate that 8% of the bird, on average, is added water. You know the messy pink liquid that pools at the bottom of the tray and leaks everywhere? That’s a byproduct of water chilling.
There is an alternative: air chilling, the technique of cooling the chicken with blasts of air. Air chilling is currently the standard in Europe and is used by premium U.S. producers such as our own sources. Like so many of the methods used by our small farms, it takes longer and requires much more space. But oh, is it worth the effort! Not only is the meat more flavorful, but the skin—which typically absorbs the most water—will brown and crisp far better. As a result, many chefs (and perfectionistic home gourmands) consider air-chilled chickens the only way to go.
2. Poor Treatment of Animals Affects Quality
It’s very easy to overlook quality of life issues for the animal you’re about to consume. As discussed in our earlier blog, “The Ultimate Gift”, it’s not comfortable to think of your meat as a living being that has been slaughtered for your sustenance. But don’t let your squeamishness about death overshadow your concern for life. Factory-raised chickens—the kind you likely find in your supermarket chain-- live in dark, crowded conditions that are not only deplorable from the perspective of the chicken, but also undermine the quality of the meat due to stress and lack of exercise. So even if you’re perfectly able to shut out unpleasant thoughts about what it’s like to be a factory-raised chicken, note that there’s a self-serving angle: a sad, stressed-out chicken is not as tasty or as healthful.
3. Industrial Methods Compromise Food Safety
All farmers, big and small, worry about the health of their livestock. But large, factory farms are truly a hotbed for disease because of the cramped conditions and agonized animals. Take Campylobacter, a food-borne illness that affects an estimated 1.3 million people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). World-famous animal science professor Temple Grandin notes that factory farmed chickens provide an ideal environment for the spread of Campylobacter. “You’ve got heat stress, rapid growth stress, ammonia stress due to poor air circulation, broken bones from rough handling.” Factory farms attempt to prevent disease by administering large doses of antibiotics to animals who aren’t sick, which helps to breed resistant bacteria. According to a study performed by the Food & Drug Administration, 10% of chickens are infected with antibiotic-resistant microbes, and the number of different strains is increasing. Clearly, prophylactic antibiotics are not the answer. In fact, the weight of evidence suggests that giving animals ample living space is the best way to control infection.
4. Small Businesses Suffer
As detailed in Christopher Leonard’s exposé, The Meat Racket, the biggest chicken producers have gamed the system by consolidating distribution into a few hands (mostly brand names you would recognize). The poultry farmers that supply chickens to these large conglomerates are also required to purchase chicks and feed from them. However, it’s the farmer who bears 100% of the risk when these weak breeds fail to mature. Leonard told NPR’s Morning Edition, "Almost invariably, from everything I've seen, the farmer loses.” Many farms have been decimated by this system, while the conglomerates have grown bigger and more powerful.
Small family farms such as Illinois’ own Slagel Family Farms have managed to thrive because they work directly with independent butcher shops and farm-to-table restaurants. When you buy from retailers and restaurants who source from small farms, you’re putting economic power back into the hands of these hard-working entrepreneurs, while expanding the market for more farmers to follow suit.
5. Factory Farms Pollute the Environment
Chickens, obviously, produce manure. When these wastes are produced in industrial amounts, it pollutes our waterways. The average factory farm raises over 600,000 birds per year. The wastes of these birds are typically disposed of in nearby fields. But because these operations produce such large, concentrated amounts of manure, it is over-applied and washes into streams and rivers.
The explosive growth of industrial poultry production in the Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, for example, has led to 1.5 billion pounds of fowl waste annually, creating algae blooms and “dead zones” that are choking the Chesapeake Bay. For huge producers, managing excess waste or assisting with the cleanup simply isn’t a priority—and it’s unlikely that the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will apply any regulatory pressure to address the problem.
So What Can You Do?
As we discuss in our "Ask Your Local Butcher" video, we advocate eating a little less meat (though it is against our own interests to say so) and paying attention to farming practices and techniques such as air chilling that produce a healthier, better tasting product. You can purchase high-quality chicken from butcher shops, at farmers’ markets, or sometimes even direct from the farm.
There’s no question that factory farms will continue to dominate the market as consumers turn a blind eye to their methods and just seek the cheapest products. But there’s a strong alliance of farmers, butchers, chefs, and foodies who are bringing back the flavorful, natural chickens that our grandparents used to enjoy. With a little conscious effort, you can find and enjoy them, too.
Homestead Meats is Evanston’s first locally sourced butcher shop, handcrafting unique fresh meats, deli meats, sausages, and other charcuterie. All fresh meats and eggs are sourced from family-owned Midwestern farms that raise their livestock in open pastures, without hormones or GMO feed.