By Dr. Mercola
Chicken is a mainstay of many Americans' diets, but it wasn't always this way. In fact, as recently as the 1920s, chickens were raised primarily for their eggs — not their meat. Chicken meat was expensive, not considered very tasty and only available seasonally, as chickens were typically slaughtered in the fall after they were no longer needed for laying eggs.
In her book, "Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats," journalist Maryn McKenna uncovers how chickens became big business — and it all started with a mistake. In 1923, a farmer in Delaware accidentally placed an order for too many hatchling chickens (500 instead of 50), so she sold them for meat.
She was so successful that she did it again the next year, and the next. Her neighbors took notice, and the chicken meat industry took off.1 Then, in 1948, a national "Chicken of Tomorrow" contest, seeking to develop a meatier chicken, was sponsored by A&P supermarket and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The major lines of chickens sold in the U.S. today can all be traced back to the contest's winner.
As new farming methods made it easier for farmers to raise more chickens, new chicken products, from nuggets to sausages, were created, and Americans took to viewing chickens as a primary source of meat. "The deal was sealed with the introduction of the McNugget in 1980 and, today, Americans eat more than four times as much chicken as we did at the start of the 20th century," Gastropod, an online agency that looks at the history of science and food, noted.2
The Rise of Big Chicken Was Fueled by Antibiotics
McKenna's book also highlights the instrumental role antibiotics played in turning chickens from primarily egg layers into a meat source. According to Gastropod:3
"In 1948, a British scientist, Thomas Jukes, was experimenting with adding vitamins and other supplements to poultry feed. Jukes worked for a company that also synthesized antibiotics, a new genre of wonder drugs that had just begun to transform human health, and so he decided to add a tiny amount of his company's antibiotic to the feed of one of the groups of chickens in his studies.
His results were astonishing: the chickens on drugs grew 2.5 times faster than the hens kept on a standard diet. News spread fast, and only a few years later, American farmers were feeding their animals nearly half a million pounds of antibiotics a year."
Today we're seeing the catastrophic consequences of this practice. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used by industrial agriculture for purposes of growth promotion and preventing diseases that would otherwise make their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) unviable. Low doses of antibiotics are added to feed as a matter of course, not only to stave off inevitable infectious diseases but also because they cause the animals to grow faster on less food.
"But there is a terrifying downside to this practice," Scientific American reported. "Antibiotics seem to be transforming innocent farm animals into disease factories."4 The antibiotics may kill most of the bacteria in the animal, but remaining resistant bacteria is allowed to survive and multiply. When the FDA tests raw supermarket chicken, they routinely find antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be present.5
The Acronized Chicken of the 1950s
Aside from using antibiotics for growth promotion purposes, a process known as "acronization" also became popular — and heavily promoted — during the 1950s, further promoting the beginnings of antibiotic resistance.
Acronized chicken was pawned off via an aggressive marketing campaign as a "fresher, tastier poultry," courtesy of the "acronize" preservation process. There was no mention of antibiotics, but what acronized essentially meant was the chicken had been treated with the antibiotic chlortetracycline — the trade name of which was Acronize.6 McKenna wrote:7
"Every bird (and, later, fish too) that was advertised as having been Acronized had been soaked in a diluted solution of antibiotics while it was being butchered. The solution contained enough drug to leave a film on the meat. The film lingered while the chickens were packaged for sale, while they sat in stores' refrigerated cases, and all the way into home kitchens, keeping bacteria that would have caused the meat to spoil from growing on its surface.
The goal of this process was to extend the time in which raw meat could be offered for sale — not just by a few days, but by a freakishly artificial several weeks and up to a month."
It was commonplace at the time for diseased chickens to be passed off as healthy, and the antibiotics bath gave consumers extra assurance that the meat would not make them sick. However, soon after the process became widespread, an outbreak of staph occurred among slaughterhouse workers — on their arms, which were frequently dunked into antibiotic-laced water.
Antibiotics and Arsenic in Chicken
It was never confirmed, but this was most likely one of the first widespread cases of antibiotic resistance. The poultry, having been fed low doses of antibiotics, developed resistant staph infections. Once slaughtered and acronized, the resistant bacteria persisted, infecting the workers. It was also never proven, but in McKenna’s book it’s revealed that a deadly outbreak of staph that occurred at a hospital, killing women and newborn babies, may have also been linked to the use of antibiotics in poultry processing.8
Later, it was determined that resistant bacteria were only present on acronized meat, leading to its eventual ban in 1966. But while antibiotics were banned from being added to food after packaging, they were still allowed to be used in feed. Even today, while many major poultry producers are taking proactive steps to reduce their antibiotic use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only made such measures voluntary.
They asked drug companies to remove indications for "feed efficiency" and "weight gain" from the labels of their antibiotic products. They also require veterinarians to oversee any addition of these drugs to animal feed and water. Most companies have agreed to comply with these voluntary guidelines and state they no longer use antibiotics for growth promotion purposes. Instead, they simply state they use the antibiotics for disease prevention and control, a use that is still allowed under the FDA's guidance.
Aside from antibiotics, the arsenic-laced drug Roxarsone had been used in chicken feed since the 1940s to control an intestinal parasite that allows the chickens to feed more productively and grow faster. It also makes the chicken meat appear pinker (i.e., "fresher"). More than 70 years later, the FDA conducted an analysis that found chickens treated with the drug had arsenic in their livers — and as a result, manufacturer Pfizer agreed to stop selling the drug (brand name 3-Nitro), but this didn’t occur until 2011.
Dropping Prices Drive Up Chicken Consumption
As noted by the Cornucopia Institute,9 the price of chicken has dropped dramatically over the past few decades, becoming the cheapest meat available in the U.S. As a result, consumption has doubled since 1970.
Seeing how chicken is supposed to be a healthy source of high-quality nutrition, the fact that it has become so affordable might seem to be a great benefit. But there's a major flaw in this equation. As it turns out, it's virtually impossible to mass-produce clean, safe, optimally nutritious foods at rock-bottom prices, and this has been true since the beginning of "industrialized farming." McKenna wrote:10
"Chicken prices fell so low that it became the meat that Americans eat more than any other — and the meat most likely to transmit foodborne illness, and also antibiotic resistance, the greatest slow-brewing health crisis of our time."
In the early 1970s, when the first large-scale CAFOs appeared — first for egg-laying hens — it was with the notion that this "modern" way of rearing livestock was more efficient and profitable.11 It remains fact, however, that CAFOs are breeding grounds for disease. In 2015, a bird flu outbreak among U.S. poultry led to the destruction of millions of chickens and turkeys in three states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa) before spreading elsewhere in the U.S.
Even though there were supposed safeguards in place to contain deadly disease outbreaks from spreading, poultry veterinarians noted that those strategies failed, as the bird flu managed to spread across 14 states in five months. When you buck the laws of nature and attempt to industrialize farming instead of raising animals the right way — with good food and access to the outdoors that allows animals to live naturally — it's a recipe for disease, not to mention environmental disaster.
Eating Eggs May Be the Best Way to Get Choline
While the consumption of chicken meat became quite glorified, eggs became largely vilified, in part because of misconceptions regarding their cholesterol content. In reality, eggs, particularly the yolks, provide valuable vitamins (A, D, E and K), omega-3 fats and antioxidants.
They're also one of the best sources of choline available. Choline helps keep your cell membranes functioning properly, plays a role in nerve communications, prevents the buildup of homocysteine in your blood (elevated levels are linked to heart disease) and reduces chronic inflammation.
Choline is also needed for your body to make the brain chemical acetylcholine, which is involved in storing memories. In pregnant women, choline plays an equally, if not more, important role, helping to prevent certain birth defects such as spina bifida, and playing a role in brain development. According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, only 8 percent of U.S. adults are getting enough choline (including only 8.5 percent of pregnant women).12
Among egg consumers, however, more than 57 percent met the adequate intake (AI) levels for choline, compared to just 2.4 percent of people who consumed no eggs. In fact, the researchers concluded that it's "extremely difficult" to get enough choline unless you eat eggs or take a dietary supplement.
Some of the symptoms associated with low choline levels include memory problems, lethargy and persistent brain fog. Your body can only synthesize small amounts of this nutrient, so you need to get it from your diet regularly. One egg yolk contains nearly 215 mg of choline.
Why else are egg yolks good for you? They're rich in the antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for vision health. Egg yolks are also an excellent source of healthy fat and protein, while providing you with vitamins that many Americans are lacking. Eating egg yolks may even be an ideal way to resolve other common nutrient deficiencies beyond choline, including vitamins A, E and B6, copper, calcium and folate.13
Free-range or "pastured" organic eggs are far superior when it comes to nutrient content, while conventionally raised eggs are far more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella. You can usually tell your eggs are pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks, and this is what most people who raise backyard chickens are after. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet.
Is Your Whole Foods Chicken the Same as Perdue or Tyson Chicken?
Perdue and Tyson are synonymous with the CAFO poultry model, churning out mind-boggling numbers of birds and reaping major profits while ignoring the devastation this industrialized model has on the environment, public health and animal welfare. Chicken sold by Whole Foods market has a decidedly different image, one that's wholesome and healthy. But, there's a good chance that your Whole Foods Chicken is the same Perdue or Tyson chicken you can get anywhere. According to a Bloomberg report:
"The biggest difference between the store-brand chickens at Whole Foods and what's for sale at another supermarket is, in many cases, the sticker price itself … A shopper on a recent visit could pay $2.49 per pound for antibiotic-free thighs with a Whole Foods label touting 'no added solutions or injections.'
Perdue's Harvestland-branded poultry — no antibiotics, air-chilled — cost just $1.99 per pound at an unremarkable Key Food supermarket just a few blocks away. The similarities don't stop there: In this case, the chicken under the 365 Everyday Value store-brand label at Whole Foods was raised by a Perdue farmer and slaughtered in the same Perdue plant as its Harvestland cousin, although a shopper likely wouldn't be aware of that fact."
If you're paying more for what you believe to be healthier, safer chicken, it's important that you know what you're getting. In some cases, the standards required by Whole Foods, such as air-chilling chickens after slaughter or antibiotic-free production, may be the same as those being used elsewhere.
Choosing Safer, More Humane Chicken and Eggs
Choosing food that comes from small regenerative farms — not CAFOs — is crucial. While avoiding CAFO meats, look for antibiotic-free alternatives raised by organic and regenerative farmers. Unfortunately, loopholes abound, allowing CAFO-raised chickens and eggs to masquerade as "free-range" and "organic."
The Cornucopia Institute address some of these issues in their egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if you’re buying your eggs at the supermarket.
Ultimately, as mentioned, the best choice is to get to know a local farmer and get your meat and eggs there directly. Alternatively, you might consider raising your own backyard chickens. Backyard chickens are growing in popularity, and many U.S. cities are adjusting zoning restrictions accordingly. Requirements vary widely depending on your locale, with many limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections (at a cost) and permits, so check with your city before taking the plunge.
You might be surprised to find that your city already allows chickens, as even many large, urban cities have jumped on board (Chicago, for instance, allows residents to keep an unlimited number of chickens, as "pets" or for eggs, provided you keep a humane and adequately sized coop). However, even if you don't want to raise your own chickens but still want farm-fresh eggs, you have many options. Finding high-quality organic, pastured eggs locally is getting easier, as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens.
If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources. Farmers markets and food co-ops are another great way to meet the people who produce your food. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Better yet, visit the farm — ask for a tour. If they have nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.