Sunday, December 20, 2009

I'm kind of a chicken when it comes to eating chicken.

There are multiple perspectives from which to make a decision to stop eating meat. The most obvious and visible is animal cruelty. However, anyone concerned with animal cruelty should probably be leading a vegan lifestyle, as some of the most cruel practices have nothing to do with putting meat on the table. Less visible perspectives include the environmental impact of current methods of producing food and, generally speaking, health (public and personal). From each of the three perspectives, choosing a diet that excludes animal products is overwhelmingly more appropriate and advantageous.

A note here: If you break down the three general categories above (cruelty, environment, health), there are endless sub-topics within each. It is difficult to imagine a pro/con list in any of those categories in which a diet inclusive of animal products would come out on top. It is my opinion that most arguments for continuing to eat meat come from three powerful places: tradition, flavor, and convenience. These are hard to overcome.

Anyway, back to the reason I started this post. The general topic of health covers all sorts of ground. Today's focus is simple. Is it safe to eat chicken? Should you risk feeding it to yourself and your family because you've always done so, you like the way it tastes, and you know you can pick it up on the cheap and have dinner on the table quickly? As I am sure you have guessed, my answers to those questions and no. It seems obvious to me, but I also understand that I have managed to get past an emotional attachment to any particular food. In other words, it is unlikely that you will ever hear me say, "I could probably stop eating X, but there's no way I could give up Y and Z...I just like Y and Z too much" (vegetarians reading this will recognize this phrase from every conversation they've ever had on the topic of becoming vegetarian).

Here is why it should be obvious to everyone. It is a fact. Consumer Reports helps sort it all out in a report in its January 2010 issue. I encourage you to read the article. It starts out like this:

You would think that after years of alarms about food safety - outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup - a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in our latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, TWO-THIRDS harbored salmonella and/or campylobacteria, the leading causes of foodborne disease.

(I added the emphasis)

The chickens tested by Consumer Reports came from more than 100 supermarkets, specialty stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states and included three "top" brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson), 30 "non-organic" store brands, nine "organic" store brands, and nine "organic" name brands. Shockingly, the most contaminated (with more than 80% testing positive for either one or both pathogens) were the big guys, Tyson and Foster Farms. Though, in fairness, all of the producers results were woeful (at least as far as this consumer is concerned). The cleanest big-brand chickens came from Perdue, who managed to get 56% of their chickens to consumers free of disease (how about a round of applause!).

An alarming detail that I found in this report was that 68% of salmonella and 60% of the campylobacteria organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics; largely as the result of the fact that chickens (and other farmed animals) are fed antibiotics to speed growth and to prevent or treat illness. That means that the bacteria that are being treated evolve and become immune to antibiotics and become less effective to treat people who got infected from eating the meat that came from the animals that were being treated with the antibiotics. If that sentence sounds absurdly circular, rambles, and doesn't make alot of since, don't blame me.

Throughout the report, the author gives tips to stay safe when eating chicken. Let's remember, this is Consumer Reports, not PETA. No hidden reason to discourage eating the stuff, just do it in a safe way. Here is how the article concludes:

Whatever bird you buy, one slipup and you're at risk. Most important is to cook chicken to at least 165° F. Even if it's no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer. The Polder THM-360, $30, and Taylor Weekend Warrior 806, $16, were excellent in our tests. Other tips:
  • Make chicken one of the last items you buy before heading to the checkout line.
  • Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest.
  • Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
  • If you'll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
  • Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
Whoa. It's like the owner's manual I got with my camera...if there were a chance that hitting the wrong button on my camera would give me diarrhea and make me vomit.

I understand that we, as humans, take calculated risks every day. Some risks are common daily occurrences that are all but unavoidable (driving a car or taking public transportation). Some risks are thrilling (rock-climbing or skydiving). Here's the deal. Eating chicken is neither unavoidable nor thrilling.

1 comment:

  1. I'm iffy on this one. I'm a long term vegetarian, and more recently vegan. But I don't think all meat eating is really the same.

    There DO exist humane farmers who raise clean, pasture raised, humanely treated chickens who are NOT massive carriers of these strains. While I'm personally not going to eat the products they raise, I may still buy their chickens for the carnivores I live with (at the moment, my rescued dog and two kittens, and added are two foster kittens who were orphaned and dumped at the city shelter). They eat meat. I owe it to them to respect that and to make sure I get their meat from the most humane sources possible.

    Sadly, even among the regional farmers that try, there are few that are able to or willing to strive to meet the standards set by humane organizations. A friend turned me on to Dan at . Even among the local caring farmers, this guy really stands out. But I'm not against eating meat or eating dairy as a theory. I'm just against using cruelly mechanized processes to achieve that....and I'm unwilling to pay someone else to abuse and terrorize for me. So perhaps its a different approach. Dunno.

    I'm still in the process of giving out my Christmas presents this year....all of which are copies of Jonathan Foer's book. I'm curious to see what kind of reactions the folks I gave them to have after reading it.