The half-billion egg recall of late August has been the latest in a string of contaminated-food recalls by the Food and Drug Administration. The action came after 1,500 people contracted the egg-borne salmonella enteritidis. If left untreated, salmonella can kill those with compromised immune systems—the elderly, infants, or people with HIV. The cause of the contamination? Chickens living in unsanitary and inhumane conditions.
Recently, a pattern has emerged: A large animal-processing company reports it is responsible for an outbreak, the media begins flapping its wings, and the public panics. Industry and the FDA offer short-term recommendations to an anxious public until the food supply is clean again. The recommendations usually go something like this: Eat organic or free-range until the problem is under control. Once the coast is clear, go back to purchasing cheaper, heavily processed sources of protein.
During this latest outbreak I visited with Anthony Iacono, of Iacono Farms, a free-range chicken farm on the South Fork of Long Island, New York. Anthony’s father broke ground in 1948, long before the term “free-range” was coined. I spoke with Iacono about the difference between his birds and poultry produced by agribusiness. I asked him to shed some light on the chicken business as a whole.
I discovered that it’s easy to raise chickens. Birds raised with ample space, that are fed and watered three times a day and properly cleaned up after and cared for, yield happy, healthy, great-tasting poultry. Rarely do they require anything more than that.
But if it is so easy to raise healthy chickens, then why all the chicken farms with their dismal living conditions? The answer is simple math. Agribusiness pumps up the bottom line by making cuts that keep the investors happy. Crowding as many chickens together as possible and disregarding hygiene is usually a good start; it’s cheaper than paying for the antibiotics that keep the birds from getting too sick.
Chickens ordinarily grow at the rate of a pound a week. The growth hormones chickens are fed add only a few ounces to the adult chickens’ weight, but if you consider we’re talking millions of chickens, the ounces add up. And so at the cost of a hormone-puffed chicken, the consumer gets a few extra ounces of a chicken bred to yield a higher percentage of breast meat (some are so top-heavy, they stumble when they walk).
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