Food Done Right: Poultry

The Food Done Right series lasts through the summer. If you need to see the terminology primer, you can upload it to another screen by clicking here.

With a family of seven at age 34, Annie DeCoteau knows how to run a budget.  She’s a friend and recently told me that despite the challenges of having seven mouths to feed, she still is able to buy organic 99% of the time.  With news swirling about the damaging effects of the conventional food supply, Annie uses food as medicine, building up strong immune systems and healthy skin and muscles via Food Done Right.

Annie’s family is omnivorous, so meat is a part of their meal plan.  If we walk into any restaurant in this country, we’d notice the shift away from proper portions – often meat hangs over the plate or takes up 75% of the space, though health experts recommend that a meat serving be no larger than one’s palm.  Annie follows that advice and loads the plate with veggies or grains, allowing meat to complement, rather than dominate, her china.

Annie explains how she does it:

We usually only eat chicken once a week. I make a menu and buy meat once a month. So, if I buy a roaster, we’ll cook it and eat most of it. I then pull off all the meat and plan a meal that uses shredded chicken like a pot pie, taco salad, lo mein, or a pizza with shredded chicken. Then I boil the carcass and make chicken stock. At that point I also pull the rest of the meat off (usually just small bits) and have chicken meat for soup. So that one roaster will last 3 meals for a family of 7. I use the stock throughout the rest of the month for whatever recipes call for it.

Notice how she purchases a chicken that is mostly intact and has a variety of uses for it after the initial meal.  In Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, unconventional farmer Joel Salatin explains why you want a bird that has not been divvied up into its parts:  “In the industry, cut up chickens sell for less than whole chickens.  For the most part, cut up chickens are the way the industry utilizes blemished carcasses.  Maybe a bird has a breast blister, broken wing, or broken leg.”  Essentially, the convenience of purchasing chicken parts might be exposing us to lower quality or traumatized meat.  As I stated last week, I do believe that the circumstances of the animal’s life passes to us when we eat them.  I, personally, do not want a tortured animal on my plate.

Conventional Poultry Life Span: Cruelty and Chlorine

The poultry industry is notoriously cruel; plenty of film is available online or via rental for you to see what happens to chickens and turkeys when they are raised within the conventional system.  Living conditions are cramped, beaks removed, they lose their feathers, have their wings clipped, peck at each other, are force fed, disease is spread, and they rarely see the light of day (if ever).

The National Chicken Council, an industry group known for supporting large-scale farms and toxic feed, puts out ethical guidelines for the large producers.  This has resulted in at least one lawsuit from consumers who don’t believe you can move the goalposts until your normal practice is referred to as humane.

Because of disease’s prevalence in industrially farmed chicken, carcasses are bathed in chlorine to reduce microbes.  This practice caused the European Union to ban American chicken imports more than a decade ago, while Russia joined the ban last year.

Basics to Remember about Chickens

  • Chickens are omnivores, eating bugs and grubs along with grasses and grains.
  • Chickens enjoy being outdoors, scratching at the dirt, embodying their “chicken-ness.”
  • Like every other animal, birds like nests and space to live.
  • Chickens also like to keep their beaks.

The Advantages of the Pastured Chicken

  • Last week’s column about eggs discusses the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio and why it is so important to your individual health in detail.  Eat Wild notes that the benefits of pasture-raising seen in eggs extends also to chicken meat, so you might want to review the egg article.   
  • According to Sustainable Table, pastured chickens contain significantly less fat, saturated fat, and total calories than their conventional counterparts.
  • While disease is rampant on large factory farms, you don’t see recalls from small-scale, pastured producers.

Animal-borne Microbes

In American vernacular, chicken has become almost synonymous with salmonella, a bacterium that causes the distresses of food poisoning and leads to the major recalls grocery stores put out.  When animals are crowded together, living among their own waste, as happens on many conventional farms, the chances for bacterial infection rises.  In 2010, Consumer Reports tested conventionally raised chickens for pathogens, finding that many of the major brands had evidence of salmonella or campylobacter.  Furthermore, Eat Wild notes that conventional animal meat often has staph infections, a bacteria the USDA does not track with diligence.

The presence or absence of harmful bacteria, in the case of conventional farming, does not guarantee humane treatment of the birds.  Remember, washing chicken parts in chlorine is the industry’s norm, which could explain why some conventional chickens came out as clean.

The Antidote

According to the Food Renegade piece referenced above, Salatin points out, “So far, not one case of food-borne pathogens has been reported among the thousands of pastured poultry producers, many of whom have voluntarily had their birds analyzed. Routinely, these home-dressed birds, which have not been treated with chlorine to disinfect them, show numbers far below industry comparisons [emphasis mine].”  On his own farm, he found no salmonella in his chicken manure during testing, a rarity across growing methods, but evidence that raising animals properly can reduce harmful species.

Keeping in mind that organic does not mean pastured, even choosing organic over conventional would reduce the risk of purchasing contaminated birds, particularly ones that could infect you with antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Finding Properly Raised Chickens

For people who have access to cars and can travel into the countryside, the Rodale Institute’s Farm Locator is for you.  Many of the entries provide in depth explanations of each farm’s growing procedures and farm contact information.  You might also attend farmers markets and chat up the meat producers there.  Remember to listen and look for the word “pastured.”  Also, don’t forget that, like you, the chicken is not a vegetarian, so you want to ensure that it is fed a proper diet that includes the bugs found on the field – this helps the animal’s meat to attain the desirable fatty acid ratio for good human health.

If you rely on the store for your poultry purchases, look for small-scale, local producers that label their meat as “pastured.”  These small farms might not have the money to certify themselves as organic, but pastured is an official designation about which they must be truthful.  Find an intact chicken or turkey if you can – meaning the wings, legs, and breast are all connected.  When my mother shops, she often finds the only two chickens that meets these requirements at her local Whole Foods Market and grabs them.  They are succulent and delicious.

In certain areas, particularly in the city or conventional grocery stores, you might only have access to chicken pieces.  That could change if people with access to whole, pastured chickens begin consuming them at a greater rate than their conventional cousins, since demand for properly grown chicken will dictate the market.  The following feature might encourage this wholesale change:

Where I live, these whole roasters generally cost about $20.  Annie is able to make three meals and soup stock for a family of seven out of the chicken.  That is 95 cents per person, per meal, for wholesome, fresh, properly raised poultry.  In other words, properly raised poultry eaten in health-supporting portions costs less per serving than anything you can find on fast food menus.  The price of convenience is ill health.  Perhaps Annie’s not budgeting her money as much as she is budgeting her time.

Final Note

Humans have been eating meat forever, but often in smaller portions due to cost and availability.  The low-cost movement cuts corners, and while certain companies grow rich, we grow sicker as a society.  Indeed, our lives have come to mirror the life of the factory farmed bird: living in fear, eating an improper diet that fattens us up and upsets our proper nutritional balance, staying sequestered indoors, using harsh chemicals to keep things clean, overuse of antibiotics, and feeling trapped and helpless.

We have ingested this way of life physically and psychically.  A few adjustments and we can snap out of it, live harmoniously, and reclaim our own well-being.  Annie’s doing it under circumstances many people would find daunting.  It’s possible.  For the omnivores out there, please consider the alterations listed above.  You will live better and it is cost effective.

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