Industrial farming is providing us with news releases that look like a Mad Libs: Time to Stop (verb) Our Chicken (noun) with (noun) was a recent headline on The Huffington Post. If you guessed lacing, feed, and arsenic, you’re the big winner! Although, that Mad Lib wouldn’t be that funny.
Yes, apparently it has been a time-tested practice to spray chicken feed with organic arsenic in order to help them grow more quickly. According to Grist, to which the headline mentioned above points, organic arsenic isn’t organic in the way we talk about a farmers market tomato. Rather it relates to its chemical makeup, and organic arsenic converts to the highly toxic inorganic arsenic quite easily. Highly toxic inorganic arsenic – poison – is detectable in manure after it has been passed by the chicken and has been found in industrial chicken meat that is readily available for consumption. At the time of this report (2006), arsenic was found in many fast foods at between 2 and 47 parts per billion (ppb), with Church’s and Popeye’s the chief offenders. At the grocery store, Perdue had the most arsenic with more than 20 ppb in samples with a strong showing by a surprise entrant, Trader Joe’s with 7-9 ppb. To their credit, Perdue stopped using arsenic shortly after the revelations in the report. I have not located a statement from Trader Joe’s, Church’s, or Popeye’s from the past four years regarding this controversy. If there are any, let me know.
So, a report from 2006. What’s the big deal? Surely we got right on it.
Wrong! Somewhere along the way we were all distracted, for last week it came to notice that Maryland just now is considering a ban on using arsenic in chicken feed. This is smart, because industrial chicken farms, whether we use their products or not, still have influence over the amount of arsenic that passes into our bodies. Manure fields generally wash into nearby streams winding up in larger waterways that could appear in our drinking glass. What’s more, sustainable farmer Joel Salatin and the Grist article note that a common practice in industrial cow growing uses chicken manure to feed cows. So, arsenic definitely converts to its poisonous form once it moves through the chicken and can then be fed to cows!
Eww: I hope your stomach is churning just a little bit, because this might be what it takes to create the sustainable food systems we need for this planet to rejuvenate.
Right now, vegetarians and vegans are probably laughing at the omnivores among us, but this news comes on the heels of last summer’s warning against eating hajiki, a Japanese seaweed. Why? Tested samples contained arsenic, though as this article points out, the amount of arsenic was A-OK by the standards of the company that sells it.
Acceptable levels of arsenic. How about zero?
I gather that the chicken my great-grandparents prepared before our food systems became centralized, monopolized, and industrialized did not contain arsenic, because it wasn’t being fed to the chickens. If you don’t feed it to them, they won’t be getting it from the environment. Many national brands and organic samples had little or no detectable arsenic according to the 2006 study, and Perdue’s change of heart shows arsenic-free birds are possible.
But wait, there’s more! Not using arsenic is one thing. This does not mean that chickens from big producers are being treated humanely, fed a natural diet, provided with nesting and room to run, given access to daily sunlight, kept off antibiotics or hormones, or allowed to maintain the integrity of their beaks. Poultry farms can be macabre places of torment and torture, where the dignity of the animal that we will take into our body is denied from birth to death.
The more labels we use for our chickens, the less clear their treatment. You should know, and be able to intuit, that the term natural means nothing in the food industry and you shouldn’t feel too comfortable about what you’re eating if that is the only descriptive used for it. I made myself feel better when I bought my first free-range chicken, only to find out that it could still be fed hormones or antibiotics and might only see daylight for a few minutes of the day. An organic free-range chicken won’t have the synthetic additives, but still might not be outdoors for that long. Now, we buy pastured eggs, because that gives the chickens daytime access to a more natural diet in the field. But a pastured chicken could be grazing fields upon which chemicals have been applied. So, to me, a pastured, organic chicken or egg is what I would choose when shopping. By the way, the moment the “pastured” label becomes an official designation, food industry history dictates that what it means to be a pastured animal will become watered down and we’ll have to look to yet another new label.
Animal Welfare for Meat Eaters: Solutions are working their way into the marketplace to help consumers determine the quality of life their food animals have. I personally believe that I inherit the life the animal lived when I take it into my body. If it wasn’t free to dig around in the dirt or graze a field, what misery will it be passing along to me?
- The Best: Get to know your local farmers at farmers markets and ask them about their animal raising practices. You can build trust without a middleman and directly express the raising methods that will lead you to buy their product.
- Second Opinion: An outside agency that certifies humane practices is helpful when you must purchase from a grocery store. Animal Welfare Approved lists strict standards by which farmers must abide in order to earn their stamp in the marketplace.
- Self-Regulation: The Whole Foods chain has joined with the Global Animal Partnership to create a scoring system that focuses on animal welfare. The descriptions put a happy face on less than ideal circumstances and must be found online, for the meat packaging labels show the numbers without further explanation. It’s a start, but could be clearer.
Re-Forming our Food System: Industrial meat production contributes to pollution, because of the vast pools of animal feces produced. Sustainable, local systems cut down on transportation and use the non-chemicalized manure to feed the land. Before our food system was taken away from us, leading many of us to abandon the idea that we could be connected to it, we had a more humane system of feeding ourselves. It was kinder to the animals. It was kinder to us.
Local access, information, and involvement will help those who farm the right way to prosper and force those who cut corners for profit to come around. We must be active, though, for industrial farming will not change without putting up a great fight.
So, I ask you, the next time you sit to a dinner that contains meat, would you rather that your chicken salad not contain arsenic? Do you think it makes sense not to have a steak that might have been fed chicken poop? And if you’re having your vegan fare, wouldn’t you like it not to have poisons in it?
It’s up to us, if we unite the billions of us worldwide to tell industrial farming corporations that we want safer, more humane foods.
As a society, we scrutinize the insignificant minutiae of life – the tone someone used with us, an eyeroll, Charlie Sheen – but let food pass into our bodies without a second thought. It’s time, I say, to adjust our priorities.