- Should You Be Eating Chicken- What You Need To Consider
- Should You Be Eating Chicken- Chicken Before The Advent Of Industrialized Farming
- Should You Be Eating Chicken- A Fairly Recent Addition To The Human Diet
- Should You Be Eating Chicken-Free Living Chicken- What They Naturally Eat
- Should You Be Eating Chicken- How Vitamin Supplementation Marked The End Of Truly Free Range Chicken
- Should You Be Eating Chicken- Vertical Integration & The End Of Small Scale Farmed Chicken
Should You Be Eating Chicken- What You Need To Consider
Here in the United States and in many developed countries, chicken has become a ubiquitous part of our regular diet, so much so that few can imagine a world without chicken. Thanks to industrialized farming, there are more chickens on earth today than any other species of bird,  and as a cheap, readily available source of lean animal protein, its popularity over the past several decades has risen astronomically. In 2011, Americans consumed over 81 pounds of chicken per person, a staggering figure that translates into over 8 billion chickens processed a year! For the health conscious, chicken has been widely promoted marketed as the perfect protein source for those seeking a lean and inexpensive way to meet their protein requirements. So much so that pre-packaged skinless, boneless chicken breasts have become a must have for anyone serious about losing weight and or building muscle. That said, health and ethical concerns over the conditions in which mass produced chickens are raised have prompted many to curtail or completely refrain from eating them. It is hardly a secret that there are problems with our commercial chicken supply, but while popular documentaries and books highlight the appalling conditions in which chickens are raised, they often fail to address certain health related questions. The first being that chickens are very recent addition to the common human diet and that chickens today are radically different in terms of nutrient profiles in comparison to the chickens consumed less than a hundred years ago regardless of ‘certified organic’ or ‘free range labels’. The field of nutrition is rife with contradicting studies and information that is far from definitive. However we can observe with some degree of clarity that foraging and small scale agriculturist societies do not suffer high incidences of diet related diseases the way we do here in the West and gain critical insights by understanding how our foods today compare to dietary practices that have been in existence for thousands if not millions of years. Libel laws exist in several states against negative or disparaging remarks regarding meat and dairy products and there are numerous sites and articles focused on persuading you to not eat chicken or meat of any kind. The goals of this article are nothing of the sort- only to present a comprehensive look at commercial and organic farming so as to help consumers with the questions that need to be asked before making a purchase. Thanks as always for reading and do share this article with those whom you believe would benefit from it.
Should You Be Eating Chicken- Chicken Before The Advent Of Industrialized Farming
In years past, most farmers in the United States kept a few chickens in addition to whatever crops or livestock they raised. Those chickens were used mostly for eggs- creating a steady source of fats and proteins or a much sought after bargaining commodity. Since they were generally worth more while alive, hens were usually spared from the pot and it was usually after a long life of laying that the tough hens would be considered as a menu item. Young roosters- (incapable of laying eggs), were often sold to brokers supplying big city restaurants and hotels, who in turn sold chicken at prices far beyond the means of the average American at the time. Thus for the better part of the 20th Century, chicken was a rare delicacy reserved for Sunday dinners and special occasions.[1,6] To give an idea how expensive chicken was before commercial mass production, in 1914 a chicken dinner at an upscale restaurant cost more than a crab, prime rib, venison or a lobster dinner. Adjusting for inflation, the average price of chicken in 1923 would have been in the ballpark of $8 per pound- a price even higher than some of the most expensive certified organic poultry today. That being said, while chicken may have been a common sight on American farms , they were by no means a regular part of our everyday diet and in most parts of the world where intensive farming is not practiced this is still the case.
Should You Be Eating Chicken- A Fairly Recent Addition To The Human Diet
As discussed in the previous article- Meat- What You Need To Know, humans only began eating domesticated animals some 10,000 years ago.[7,8,9] A time frame that may appear to be a long time, but considering that for the better part of 2.4 million years our animal proteins foods came only from wild animal meat and wild plants, it is less than .04% of our time on the planet.[8,9] One prominent theory is that all animals, (us included), are genetically adapted to the environment in which they were formed and thus any new form of diet or lifestyle that the human genome has not had adequate time to adapt to- or is not part of our evolutionary conditioning may manifest itself in the form of chronic disease.[7,8,9,10] This theory explains the high rate of what are commonly termed ‘Western diseases’ or ‘diseases of affluence’ such as heart disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other diet and lifestyle related illnesses that are not prevalent in non-Westernized societies. [7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16]
Sixty four million Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease in some form or another and if you are reading this in the United States or any other developed country, chances are that you are 500 times more likely to die from a heart attack or diet related disease than any other possible cause of death. [17,18] A sobering statistic to say the least, and an ironic one at that given that our ancestors spent millions of years without cardiovascular or any diet related disease being an issue.[7,8] Instead they worried about the very real threat of early death from events that were relatively out of their control such as accidents, malnutrition, communicable diseases, infections, wars and childbirth. Events that advances in modern medicine, food availability and social structures have made comparatively rare in the developed countries of the world. Yet we have replaced those threats with a food environment where the decisions we make regarding what and how we eat will be ultimately responsible for length and quality of life. While several epidemiologic studies have found correlations between higher meat intake and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease[66,67,68] it must be noted that all of the chicken, beef or pork consumed by individuals monitored or surveyed in these studies were raised in Westernized commercial farms.
No study has ever been able to find any such correlation between heart disease, cancer or diet related illnesses and high meat consumption among hunter gatherer or non-Westernized small scale pastoral populations who consume as much if not more animal proteins than we do in developed countries. [20, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65] Many pastoral non-Western societies have chicken as an occasional part of their diets as well without ill effect, and the same observation can be made of the occasional consumption of chicken raised by subsistence farmers over the past several hundred years. That being said, the smoking gun points not to chicken or high animal protein diets but to the nutritional differences between the birds we eat here in the West today and the ones we have been eating for centuries. (See my article- How Much Protein Do You Need for more information)
Should You Be Eating Chicken-Free Living Chicken- What They Naturally Eat
Chicken might be a relative newcomer to our diet, but we have been eating wild birds for quite some time now. Chickens are a subspecies of Red Junglefowl, a tough and hardy bird that was originally domesticated in Asia, Africa and Europe not as a food source but for the purpose of staged cockfighting. Their ability to eat just about anything, (under free living conditions chickens eat worms, insects, seeds and even small animals like lizards and mice), and their propensity to quickly reproduce without much in the way of care made them a valued source of eggs and occasionally meat over the course of history. By the beginning of the 20th Century, almost every farm in the United States had a small flock of chickens. Free ranging and searching the soil for their food, these scrappy birds did not become a major addition to the Western diet until two major events changed our supply of chicken forever- the development of vitamin supplements and World War II.
Should You Be Eating Chicken- How Vitamin Supplementation Marked The End Of Truly Free Range Chicken
Anyone who has lived on a farm pretty much knows that chickens are for the most part a very independent bunch. Like many animals (humans included), chickens evolved in such a way that they need certain amounts of Vitamin D to ensure proper bone growth. Farmers at the turn of the century had no idea what Vitamin D was at the time- only that chickens that weren’t out in the sun for a certain amount of time didn’t grow the way they should. Consequently, chickens were always given access to the open air and could spend the better part of the day foraging for food. The problem is that other animals like the taste of chicken just as much as we do, so farmers at the time had to deal with substantial losses from rats, raccoons, foxes, hawks and other predators. To minimize culling of the flock from predatory animals and the elements, farmers would keep chickens in a fenced enclosure during the day so they would get the necessary sunlight and bring them into a shed at the end of the day. These conditions meant that you could only have a limited number of chickens per square acre- as they needed a lot of space to move around and so given the low supply output, the price of chicken remained exorbitant due to high demand and low supply.
Advances in genetics and the increased availability of cheap corn based grains meant that farmers were able to make chickens reach market weight faster than ever before. Like humans and other animals, chickens are also not suited to a diet based around monocotyledonous grains, but by increasing the calories consumed with grain based chicken feed, farmers were able to get their chickens bigger, (and fatter), much faster than ever. In 1927 chickens were deemed ready for market after 16 weeks at 2.5lbs, but by 1941, corn based chicken feed helped produce chickens weighing in at 2.9lbs in only 12 weeks.[1,6] In spite of the reduction in time to get chickens to market weight, the supply was still relatively low as space limitations ultimately made mass production impossible. However, the discovery of Vitamin D and its role in bone growth would usher in a change in poultry farming that affects us to this day. Before vitamins were fully understood, farmers had no way of knowing why chickens died or didn’t grow properly when not given adequate access to sunlight.
With the isolation Vitamin D and the discovery that birds and other animals synthesized it from sunlight, cod liver oil (and later purified synthetic Vitamin D) was added to chickenfeed so that chickens could be kept in sheds indefinitely. Thus overcoming the previous space limitations on how many chickens a farmer could raise as there was no longer a need for an outside yard or pasture for them to roam. Having chickens in sheds at all times also reduced losses due to predators and eliminated the labor involved in getting them back into the sheds at the end of the day. Like any animal, when birds are kept in one place without the ability to move freely and fed constantly, they become fatter than they would under natural circumstances. An attribute that was a huge boon to farmers. Chickens mature in a small fraction on the time it takes for cows and hogs to reach market weight and the onset of World War II saw a huge demand for animal protein for the soldiers overseas. A demand that would introduce chicken into the diet of the average American for decades to come.
World War II & The Beginning Of Mass Chicken Production
With the ability to confine large numbers of chickens in sheds and the shorter time required to get them to market weight, chicken became the de facto source of animal protein for American troops overseas during the Second World War, bringing with it a huge surge in chicken production in response to wartime demands. Other meats such as pork and beef were rationed during the war, while chicken was not, and so the combination of lowered prices (due to a much larger supply), more Americans turned to chicken as a regular common source of animal protein during the 1940’s. By the end of the war, the nation had developed a taste for chicken and production evolved into the tightly controlled commercial industry it is today.
Higher production through more intensive farming methods meant that there was more chicken on the market at any given time and given economics of supply and demand, prices fell drastically over the years. The previously limited chicken supply meant farmers with small flocks could raise enough chickens to cover their overhead expenses and still make a decent profit. With the sudden glut in the market, prices began to fall and under those circumstances the only way to possibly make a profit was to increase production levels. Something a small scale chicken farmer could hardly afford given the financial investments required up front to raise more chickens. Thus, those unable to purchase and run bigger operations were effectively priced out of the chicken farming business.
Should You Be Eating Chicken- Vertical Integration & The End Of Small Scale Farmed Chicken
Making matters worse for small farmers, in a bid to lower operating expenses in an economy of lowering chicken prices, individuals like John Tyson, Arthur Perdue and others started buying hatcheries for baby chicks, corn fields and mills to grow and make their own chicken feed and processing plants to harvest and butcher their poultry.[6,21] By controlling every step of the lives of their chickens from birth to butchering, and by combining production, processing and distribution into the same company they were able to cut out middlemen brokers, reduce costs and increase the efficiency of production in a model called vertical integration. Vertical integration in the poultry industry would later become a model for the beef and pork industries as well as all modern farmed animals. Given such competition, the family farmer could not possibly hope to stand against these industrial juggernauts and by the late 1950’s these industries extended their reach by contracting smaller farmers in another key move that forever changed chicken production in the United States. Chicken companies began providing smaller farmers with young chicks straight out of their hatcheries, in addition to chickenfeed, medication and any technical assistance required to raise their birds in the most efficient manner possible. The farmer provided the sheds and the labor in return for a fee based on a feed conversion ratio where the less feed needed to bring the bird to market weight meant the more the farmer would be paid. In so doing, the era of the independent chicken farmer raising their own birds and making their own decisions became a thing of the past as farmers became contracted chicken growers with no say in how chickens should be raised, harvested or marketed.
Vertical integration allowed the poultry industry to further increase production and (along with generous subsidies from the US Government), bring down the price of chicken to the point where it became an everyday item in the diets of many Americans. As prices dropped and production surged, powerful marketing campaigns portrayed chicken as being leaner, (and thus healthier), than the more expensive beef and pork- setting off another huge surge in chicken consumption in the 1980’s among the health conscious that continues to this day. Today the average price of chicken is somewhere around $1 per pound- a far cry from the $8 per pound (relative price) in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Birds today are nearly twice the size of the ones from that period and grow to maturity in less than half the time. That being said, the chickens themselves changed significantly as well in terms of their impact on our health.
Should You Be Eating Chicken- The ‘Need’ For Antibiotics With Commercially Farmed Chicken
One issue that arises from having chickens confined to an enclosed space eating an unnatural corn based diet is that they are by no means healthy birds. Free living chickens do not naturally have a grain based monocotyledonous diet and like any other animal, have a baseline activity level requirement for optimal health. Take away their natural diet and activity levels and what you are left with is a sick, but fattened shadow of what the bird should be. Having chickens crowded together also creates the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. To deal with the omnipresent threat of disease among mass farmed chickens penned together by the tens of thousands, commercial chicken growers use antibiotics and antimicrobials to reduce outbreaks that would otherwise decimate their flocks. This form of preventative antibiotic use had an unexpected side effect in that antibiotics not only increased the survival rate of chickens in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, but also promoted growth by improving weight gain and feed conversion efficiency by way of their effect on microflora in the gut.
The growth promoting effects of antibiotics decreases time required to get chickens to market weight which translates into higher production efficiency and higher profit margins. Yet we all pay a potentially high price with our health whether we eat chicken or not. Since the 1950’s, antibiotics have been given to chickens in low doses, in their feed, water or by injection to maximize flock yields. The problem is that this low dosage, non-therapeutic use does not eradicate dangerous bacteria, it merely suppresses it and in so doing creates an ideal environment for antibiotic resistant bacterial strains to develop. Ones that can and do pass on to us.[25,26]
How Antibiotics Use In Commercial Chickens Affects You
Antibiotics are without question, our primary defense against bacterial disease. A medical breakthrough that has saved millions of lives since they were discovered in the last century. However, since chickens and other livestock use the same antibiotics that we do, multi-drug resistant bacterial strains continue to increase. As bleak as it may sound, the threat of one day contracting a food borne illness that will not respond to antibiotics increases with every passing year that there is no change in the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in commercial farms. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Medical Association (AMA) are but a few prominent health organizations that list the preventative use of antibiotics and antimicrobials in farmed animals as a major contributor to the increase in antibiotic resistant food borne diseases in humans and the emergence of antibiotic resistant diseases. What affects all of us- even those of us who don’t eat chicken is that studies have found that the same chemicals used in commercial farming have already leaked into the majority of American streams and rivers.
In spite of recommendations against their use from almost every major medical organization, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in chickens and livestock continues unabated thanks to strong opposition to any bans from the members of Congress representing represent states where meat production is a central part of their economic structure. Non-therapeutic antibiotic use has long been banned in the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration attempted to implement similar bans in the 1970’s but pressure from meat and pharmaceutical lobbies have made any binding legislation impossible. Bear in mind that commercial livestock in the United States alone use anywhere from 18 to 24 million tons of antibiotics a year- a figure that is eight times the total amount of antibiotics used by all the humans on the planet on an annual basis. With those numbers in mind it becomes clear to see that farmed animals- not humans, make up the lion share of profits for the pharmaceutical antibiotic industry. Thus it should be no surprise that they put their considerable weight behind the already powerful American meat lobbies to see to it that there are no changes in policy that would ban or restrict the use of antibiotics in chickens and other livestock.
Chickens & Fat Content- Is Leaner Truly Healthier?
Thanks to massive public relations campaigns in the 1980’s and 1990’s presenting chicken as a leaner alternative to beef and pork, chicken sales have increased exponentially over the past few decades as consumers shifted further away from red meat and pork and towards what is perceived as a healthier alternative in the form of chicken. While some chicken parts- breast meat particularly- can be lower in total fat than some cuts of beef and pork, others are higher in fat that lean cuts of meat. It’s a moot point though as insurmountable research shows that in terms of overall health, a high fat intake is not necessarily bad for your health. Many hunter-gatherer societies who are generally free of the signs or symptoms of metabolic or diet related disease, have individual fat intakes between 36% and 46% of their total energy intake. A value that is slightly higher than the amount of fat we eat here in the United States, as fat makes up 33% of the daily caloric intake of the average American adult. Yet the average cholesterol level of studied hunter-gatherer societies is an astonishingly low 125 ml/dl with ideal ratios of low density lipoproteins to high density lipoproteins. These numbers are remarkably similar to that of free living primates  and may very well be the norm for us as a species under natural conditions but it is far removed from the average American adult’s cholesterol levels which is 200 ml/dl. We are bombarded with the concept that lower fat equals better health- but it is a flawed presumption-but one that creates a demand driven market where the price of one pack of two boneless, skinless chicken breasts cost more than an entire chicken.
Differences In Fat Profiles Between Commercially Raised Chicken & Free Living Birds
The fact is that numerous studies of non-Western populations demonstrate that it is entirely possible to consume relatively high fat diets without producing a blood plasma lipid profile that promotes the development of cardiovascular disease.[72,73] But this is possible only if there is sufficient intake of monosaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and an appropriate ratio of omega-3 fatty acids relative to saturated fat intake. What this means is that it isn’t a question of how much animal fat you consume but what kinds of fats are present in the animals that you eat. That said, a look at the fat profiles of the free living birds and mammals consumed in non-Western societies where metabolic disease is rare clearly underscores the reality that even the best certified organic chicken from the most health conscious of supermarkets are not the same nutritionally as what is consumed in other parts of the world.
The dominant fatty acids found in the muscle tissue of free living chickens are monsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MFA’s and PFA’s) and due to their natural diet of insects and other invertebrates, they also contain high levels of the long chain omega-3 fatty acids- eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). The advent of industrialized chicken farming radically transformed the fat profiles of chickens raised under these conditions to such a degree that they are in no way similar to the fat profiles of the free living birds and animals that we have adapted to eat over time.
Chicken & Fat Content
Firstly, the fat content of any modern chicken, whether it be it free range or commercially raised is far higher than a true free living chicken. In spite of being marketed as being lean, today’s chickens (even the certified organic ones) are much fatter than anything nature could possibly produce without our intervention. Today’s chickens are custom made to the consumer tastes with larger breast sizes to satisfy the demand (and higher prices) for white meat products, lower muscle mass so as to not be tough, or chewy- and are higher in saturated fat so as to not be as dry as their free living counterparts. With all the marketing of chicken as the ultimate lean protein source, it is hard for many imagine that even the most organic and free range chickens are far fatter and have higher levels of saturated fat than any natural and free living source of animal protein.
For the past one hundred years, the main goal of commercial farming has been to increase the carcass fat content of chickens raised for human consumption. Chickens with the highest fat content command the highest prices due to learned consumer preferences for tender and relatively fatty chicken, while those with the lower fat levels that are akin to a free living bird are seldom used today for human consumption in developed countries. By nature muscle tissue is tough and somewhat sinewy- which is why free living chickens on real farms or in the wild, roaming without restriction and building muscle mass in the process, have a naturally harder meat when cooked as pulling muscle from bone requires some degree of effort and is tougher to chew due to the relatively low fat content. However, by confining chickens, overfeeding them and reducing their activity levels, they develop less muscle tissue (which are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), and greater fat stores which are predominantly saturated fats.
Chickens And Saturated Fats
Studies have shown that among most foraging societies, saturated fats made up only 5% of total energy intake and estimates confirm that the exclusive consumption of wild animals by our ancestors before the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago made it such that saturated fats were not a significant part of our dietary intake for several million years. Today saturated fats comprise over 15% of the total energy intake of the average American diet coming from chicken and other animal protein sources. It would be irresponsible and incorrect to blame saturated fats alone for the high rates of cardiovascular disease we experience here in the West, as an array of behavioral, dietary and genetic factors also influence it’s development. Many studies have found that excessive saturated fats may have a role in the development of cardiovascular disease,[37,38,39,40,41,42] while others do not.[43,44] Nevertheless, the manipulation of chicken flocks to produce higher levels of saturated fats is not natural by any stretch and these changes not only reduced heart friendly monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, but also the very important long chain omega 3 fatty acids.
The Effects Of Grain Fed Chickens With Regard To Omega-3 Fatty Acids Content
Regular consumption of foods naturally high in long chain omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help raise HDL (the good) cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and may have a role in moderating the inflammatory process- thus reducing the likelihood of atherosclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and other so-called Western diseases.[44,45,46,47] An interesting common denominator among foraging populations and non-Western pastoralists who generally have no signs of metabolic disease it is that their animal protein sources all contain naturally high levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids.[20,35] Most studies cataloging the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in humans point to the long chain forms, eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). Simply stated, the longer chain forms of omega-3’s are easily used by our bodies while the shorter chain forms such as alpha linolenic acid (ALA) are not as biologically available to us. Alpha linolenic acids are found in plants and we are unable to efficiently convert them into their longer chain components, but chickens and other animals can. Free living chickens don’t plants, but they do eat insects and other invertebrates whose do eat plants and leaves. Chickens are then able to convert some of the alpha linolenic acids (ALA’s) from the plant sources into the longer chain forms that our bodies can use- eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). When chickens were removed from fields, confined and fed a diet based on corn and soy a major alteration in their fat content occurred. Corn and other grains are seeds- which are high in the short chain linolenic acids (LA) which cannot be converted to the long chain forms of omega-3 fatty acids. In so doing an essential source of healthy fatty acids was removed from our diets. (See my article series on sources of omega-3 fatty acids for more information).
Chicken & Possible Increased Incidence Of Depression
Long chain omega-3 fatty acids are dietary substrates essential for the formation of brain tissue  and many evolutionary theories surmise that its addition to the diet of primates may have been key to the increase in brain size and neurological development that made us human. That being said, our current intake from animal sources is far different than in our evolutionary past given the pervasive use of seed based oils today and the shift in feeds to chickens from their natural habits to corn and soy based diets.[49,50] Research surmises that lower dietary intake of those long chain omega-3’s from natural sources could be a factor in the prevalence of unipolar depression in the Western World as many studies have found correlations between long chain omega-3 fatty acid intake and increased incidences of depression.[51,52,53]
Depression affects an estimated one in ten Americans every year and this disorder accounts for more disability adjusted lost years in the world population than heart disease, lung cancer or AIDS and is a debilitating neuropsychiatric disorder that has increased substantially during the past one hundred years.[54, 55] Meta-analysis of several studies have found a direct link between the omega-3 fatty acid EPA and a reduction in the incidence of depression, and it bears noting that intakes of long chain omega-3 fatty acids similar to levels obtained from wild protein sources throughout the better part of the human evolutionary experience may be an integral component of mental health. Incidences of depression are far lower in hunter gatherer societies who eat free living animal protein sources that are naturally high in long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and while it is difficult to separate the impact of lifestyle on depressive disorders it is hard to ignore the links which are being given serious consideration in the scientific community. 
Is Free Range Chicken As Good As Free Living Chicken?
Nutrient comparisons of free range and certified organic chicken versus commercially raised chickens have found that free range chickens have only slightly higher levels of polyunsaturated fats and lower levels of saturated fats. Other than that, all other nutrient profiles are the similar and the conclusion is that aside from consumer taste preferences, no real nutritional differences exist between certified organic free range chicken and commercially raised chicken but there is one major flaw with these studies as they were done only on relatively large scale farms with no comparisons between ‘free range chickens’ and free living chickens which have dramatically different fat profiles due to food and lifestyle differences. Without appropriate controls it is impossible to extrapolate any useful data since there are such major differences between truly free living chickens and certified ‘free range’ ones. The term ‘free range’ by no means replicates the natural food supply or exercise habits of a truly wild bird. Anyone with a modicum of experience with truly free range chicken knows that even the most expensive ‘certified organic’ and ‘free range’ chicken stocked in ‘health conscious’ supermarkets are nothing like the ones you would find on a real farm. Not even close.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, the term ‘free range’ only requires that chickens have access to the outside. There is no stipulation as to how large this outside area needs to be, how many birds are allowed per acre, nor whether that outside access is to grass or gravel. The ‘free range label’ also carries no indication of how much exercise the chickens get or where their primary food source comes from. For the most part ‘free range’ chickens are raised either with limited access to the outside in special houses and are by no means the bucolic image the term tries to present of birds roaming free in a beautiful pastoral environment. As such, it makes sense that the fat and nutritional profiles of ‘free range’ chickens would be similar to that of commercially raised ones as they are not that different when it comes down to food sources. Another element that underscores the case that ‘free range’ chicken is by no means the same as free living ones comes from even the most cursory examination of their bones. The primary method for determining the activity level of any animal is by measuring bone density, since bone size and structure are highly responsive to the mechanical demands placed on them. As a rule, the more physically active an animal is, the more robust its bones will be. That being said, even the most superficial examination of the tough and almost unbreakable bones of a truly free living chicken will confirm that there is a world of difference between them and the soft and easily snapped bones of the most expensive ‘free range’ birds. Differences that don’t stop manufacturers from charging as much as $2 to $3 per pound higher for having that label on the package.
Certified Organic Chicken- Is It Really That Much Better?
Muscle content is far higher among free living chickens, so much so that eating them can be a true exercise for your jaw given their inherent toughness. Toughness that comes from the higher muscle mass associated with higher physical activity levels. Greater muscle mass that equates to higher levels of healthy polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats and relatively less naturally occurring saturated fats. That both ‘free range’ and ‘certified organic’ chicken has the same flesh consistency as commercially raised chickens should make anyone question the diet and activity level of these birds. As stated in the previous article Eating Meat- What You Need To Consider, the term ‘certified organic’ is limited in meaning. Certified organic chicken are required to follow certain minimal standards established by the USDA, namely that no antibiotics or growth producing hormones may be used, all grain must be ‘100% organic’ and free of animal products and the chickens must have ‘access to sunlight’ and have freedom of movement. We have already established that access to sunlight and pasture has nothing to do with how active the birds actually are and the guideline requirements make no mention of how much of the birds’ diet comprises of corn based grains and how much comes from their having adequate space and pasture to actually roam and find their own food.
Furthermore, the idea of chickens having a 100% vegetarian diet in itself is inherently unnatural as they are omnivorous by nature. Making matters worse, the supposedly 100% certified organic grain they are supposed to be fed contains synthetic methionine- which is by no means organic. The USDA allows synthetic methionine in organic chicken feed because without it the chickens would not survive since they are not vegetarian. Chickens have evolved to eat a diet that contains some amounts of non-vegetable based proteins from insects, worms, and small animals. Sources that naturally contain the amino acid methionine- which plays a major role in protein synthesis, egg production, optimum egg size, growth performance and feed efficiency.[79,80] Conventionally raised chickens are given feed with ground fish and other animals added to it, but synthetic methionine is a far cheaper alternative. In a perfect world, the term 100% organic would not be used but at this point it would be safe to say that increasing sales by making consumers feel better about their purchases is far more important than honest labeling. Essentially, these certified organic rules are about farming that emphasizes the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water and not about raising chicken that is as natural as possible. The USDA makes no claim that organically produced chicken is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced ones,  and in some respects certified organic chicken may even be more harmful to your health than conventional ones.
Certified Organic Chicken Has Higher Levels Of Harmful Bacteria Than Conventional Chicken
Most consumers perceive certified organic chickens as being safer and harboring less pathogenic bacteria as a result of the ‘more natural conditions’ in which they are raised, yet even this perception is incorrect. Published studies on the bacterial quality of free range and certified organic chickens consistently report that conventionally raised chickens have lower levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter.[82,83] How could certified organic chickens have higher bacterial counts than conventional ones? To start, greater access to the outside can mean greater exposure to wild birds, insects, rodent droppings and other carriers of Salmonella bacteria. Also the so called 100% organic grain is grown without the use of chemicals which means they rely heavily on animal waste based fertilizers- which can also increase the likelihood of contamination. Not a pretty picture but the reality of chicken farming today nevertheless. Other than a less confined space, studies find that there is nothing about the growing conditions of free range or organic chickens that would reduce the probability of Salmonella or any other enteric pathogens.[82,83]On the contrary, a report from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service found that 31% of free range chickens and 25% of ‘all natural’ chicken were contaminated with Salmonella, whereas the industry standard for Salmonella in conventional commercial chickens is only 12.8%.
If you stop to consider for a moment that the reason chicken was so expensive before the advent of commercial farming because of the space required, it stands to reason that it is impossible to supply enough poultry to satisfy the needs of millions of consumers in a way that allows chickens roam free and eat their natural diets. Problems with space, increased labor costs, attrition due to predators and current consumer demand for tender, fatty chicken at a low cost make such ideas all but impossible, but it does not stop the meat industry from doing their best to create an image of their products being raised on family farms where they live great lives before being harvested.
Don’t Always Believe What’s On The Label
The industry has other methods of persuading consumers that their chickens are of higher quality and thus merit higher prices. Several brands label their chicken as ‘All Natural’- a term that means only that that there are no artificial chemicals or ingredients in the packaged product and that it was minimally processed. Any company using that label should be suspect as it means that they are not even able to meet the requirements for the ‘certified organic’ label- which as we have noted is not as impressive as we might like them to be. Inspections are not required to verify any aspect of an ‘all natural’ claim and it has nothing to do legally with the food the chickens were fed, or the conditions in which they were raised.[86.Marion]
Other terms such as ‘raised without antibiotics’ are equally questionable. Realizing the public outrage over the use of antibiotics and the potential for increased sales and higher prices, chicken companies have in the past injected their eggs with antibiotics. In so doing they technically stayed true to the idea of their chickens being ‘raised without antibiotics’ while still reaping the antibiotic driven benefits of increased growth and reduced incidence of disease. An unethical tactic to say the least, but in an environment where the onus is on increasing profit margins it is hardly surprising.
Options To Consider
Given the rather dismal report, what would be the best options for an individual focused on their health? The answer is not as simple as we might like it to be as it is a personal question that we each have to ask, weighing in what’s best for our health and the environment. For many, it also comes down to a matter of economics as you simply cannot expect truly higher quality and truly natural chicken without higher prices. Currently, the price of certified organic chicken averages about $4.69 a pound while conventional chicken costs far less at $1.06 a pound- the lowest price for animal protein anywhere in the world thanks to commercial farming techniques and government subsidies. In practical terms that comes down to a choice between a whole organic chicken costing around $20 or a conventional one costing less than $5- a challenging decision when income is limited and you understand that the certified organic label is often a case of all that glitters isn’t gold. Prices are even higher per pound for skinless boneless chicken breasts which we should all recognize is perhaps the newest animal protein addition to our collective diet as at no other time in history did humans eat chicken breasts without bones or skin. No native culture on earth ever did and they and they do far better than we do here in the West with regards to just about every diet related health parameter.
In the end it comes down to an understanding of the shortcomings and compromises that are required to mass produce enough chicken to meet the demands of the developing world- compromises that are conveniently glossed over by public relations campaigns and questionable marketing practices. As comprehensive as this article may seem it doesn’t even touch on the social and ethical questions that the current industry raises. Nor does it address the dangers of having but a few corporations mostly in charge of our chicken supply as these questions must be considered as well. Perhaps it simply isn’t feasible given the space and labor requirements to mass produce truly free living chickens, but they are out there and supporting the small scale farmer who does produce them might be the best choice if that option is available. It might be a costly purchase but it might be worth it.
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Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Winner of the 2013 and 2012 Best of Manhattan Awards for Personal Training. Learn more about Kevin’s personal training services on his official website here.
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