Yoga and Nutrition
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Sunday
Oct132013

Three legit reasons to be afraid of eating chicken

In the story of Chicken Little, the title character is a silly bird whose fearful overreaction ("The sky is falling!") leads to her demise. Some people, including our government's own food safety teams, are telling us that recent concerns about eating chicken are similarly alarmist. I'm not buying it.

If you haven't heard, chicken produced at three California facilities has caused serious illness in at least 317 people in 20 states and Puerto Rico since March. The culprit is the bacteria Salmonella Heidelberg, strains of which are resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics. The CDC reports 42% of those infected have required hospitalization. These are only among known cases. The outbreak isn't over yet, and as of last week, the USDA has allowed Foster Farms' plants to continue operating.*

In a letter to Foster Farms, the company that owns the processing plants and is the country's 10th largest poultry producer, the USDA wrote, “Your establishment has failed to demonstrate that it has adequate controls in place to address salmonella in your poultry products.” The letter noted a dozen cases this year in which feces contaminated bird carcasses.

I think this is egregious enough. If you need more convincing, here are three more reasons it would be crazy to keep eating chicken.

 

1) The above conditions aren't uncommon in chicken processing.

In fact, they're the norm. Or better. According to the LA Times, "samples at the three plants found rates of salmonella in chicken parts on par with industry standards," and their whole chickens were safer than national averages. So you can avoid chicken from Foster Farms, but chances are you're getting the same dirty deal no matter where your chicken comes from. Foster Farms boasts, "There's nothing in our chicken but chicken... All of our fresh chicken is 100% natural, locally grown on farms." Pretty ironic, not to mention "natural" doesn't mean "safe." (And since when is chicken "grown"? Do you plant it? Does it come on trees?) The company says their poultry has "no added hormones or steroids," which is pretty meaningless since there are no FDA-approved growth hormones for poultry, anyway. Antibiotics are used, though, here and at most industrialized animal production facilities. It's these antibiotics that contribute to worldwide drug resistance that affects humans more frighteningly each day.

 

2) It may be “Made in China,” unbeknownst to us.

In August, the USDA ended a ban on processed chicken imports from China. Given the rash of food safety failures lately in China—from the deadly H7N9 bird flu to unidentified rat meat sales to 16,000 dead pigs appearing in a river that sources Shanghai's drinking water—this news isn't exactly comforting. Because the products will be made from birds originally hatched in the United States, neither country-of-origin labeling nor on-site USDA inspectors will be required. Government employees will be replaced by workers from the poultry companies themselves. Even the GAO has voiced "questions about the validity" of this industry self-policing, noting the USDA's failures in monitoring pilot programs to evaluate the new procedures. This system may "save" money and time, but not lives. Furthermore, the USDA's action paves the way for China to export raw poultry to the United States. (What would the United States net out of this deal, besides questionable food? Possibly China re-opening its fat beef market to the all-powerful and money-hungry American beef industry.) 

 

3) Sometimes chicken meat isn’t really chicken meat.

Professors from the University of Mississippi Medical Center randomly selected chicken nuggets from two national fast-food restaurants for microscopic analysis. In their report, which appeared in the American Journal of Medicine, they state that the samples contained "an adulterated chicken product containing 50 percent or less chicken meat, with other chicken components, in a suspension of unknown carrier material." Translation? Less than half of the nuggets were striated muscle tissue, the lean protein we assume comprises white meat chicken. Most of the nuggets were blood vessels, nerve tissue, glands, connective tissue, and ground bone. (If this melange sounds familiar, it's because it is sometimes used in dog food.) To be fair, this examination used a very small sample. However, the results likely can be generalized, given the importance of standardized recipes in fast food chains. And, while it might not be the worst thing to eat offal ("off fall") sustainability-wise, consumers should know what they—and their children—are actually eating.

 

*The USDA insists that the government shutdown hasn’t slowed work on resolving this situation. I’m not buying this, either. The CDC has furloughed about 70% of its staff. According to NPR, who interviewed director of the CDC Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases Chris Braden, there are normally eight people who oversee the database PulseNet, which tracks foodborne illnesses. In the first week of October, only three of those eight remained due to the shutdown. Braden explained though he has the authority to bring furloughed workers back, it would take precious time to do so, time when more people’s lives may be at stake. The communications staffs at CDC and USDA are reduced, as well, limiting the agencies’ ability to advise the public on how to take precautions.

 

 

 

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