Broiler chicken is usually the kind of chicken most Americans consume. But there is a downside to this staple. With the risk of food poisoning and antibiotic resistance becoming very real concerns, should you be exploring alternatives? If not, safety measures like cooking, storing, and preparing it right could save you a lot of trouble and ward off infections.
Broiler chickens are as synonymous with American food as the golden arches are to fast food. The United States has the biggest broiler chicken industry in the world, and Americans eat more chicken per capita(90 pounds per annum in 2015) than people in any other country. But health concerns have some sections of society up in arms about consuming broilers. Here’s a closer look.
Is Your Chicken A Broiler?
Before diving into the side effects and risks, you may first want to establish whether or not the chicken you buy is in fact broiler chicken at all. Broiler chickens in general, refer to chicken specifically reared to be consumed as meat. The breeding methods that help the birds grow bigger faster so they can be sold has resulted in some less than ideal outcomes. Which is why you need to be aware of the possible risks from consuming chicken bred a certain way, and be aware of what you’re getting.1 If your chicken isn’t labeled “free-range” or something that alludes to different rearing methods, it is probably a broiler.
What Are The Risks?
Foodborne illnesses strike 1 in 6 Americans every single year. Of the 48 million or so who experience these problems, as many as 128,000 end up needing hospitalization. And an unfortunate 3,000 succumb to these diseases.2 Many of the bacteria and germs responsible for these infections thrive in raw meats, particularly poultry. As the CDC points out, what makes broiler chickens especially susceptible to contamination is the process they go through before they get to the stores you buy them at. The carcass of the bird you buy becomes exposed to juices and drippings from all the birds that were rinsed in the cold water tank after they were slaughtered. So even if that particular bird wasn’t originally carrying germs or bacteria, it is quite likely it will pick up some during this dunk in the tank!3 And that’s why there’s so much fuss about broiler chickens. There is also, of course, the debate on the inhumane conditions the birds are reared in, but that’s a discussion for another day!
Consumer Reports published a feature on the results of their tests on a sample of chicken breasts of different brands including organic ones, from across the United States. They found potentially harmful bacteria in a whopping 97 percent of the tested chicken samples.4 Worrying news like this underline the fears we have about contamination of broiler chicken thanks to the headlines on salmonella or other food poisoning that has become worryingly common. A similar study in England revealed that 83 percent of chicken sampled had Campylobacter spp. And 25 percent had Salmonella.5
This on its own is problem enough, but to make things a little more challenging comes the added issue of antibiotic resistance. Because broilers are bred in such intensive conditions and are often low on immunity, they are chock-full of antibiotics given to keep up the health of the bird and prevent outbreaks. This has spawned the increase of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that include things like Salmonella. Now if you were to contract Salmonella Heidelberg, a non-typhoidal Salmonella, a doctor would typically administer drugs like Ceftriaxone or Ciprofloxacin. Unfortunately, strains of salmonella are now showing resistance to these medicines due to the high levels of antibiotic use in poultry farming. Which means you end up having a really bad bout of food poisoning and one that’s markedly riskier since it doesn’t respond to medicines normally used to treat it.6
When you eat these broiler chickens, the antibiotics and other things injected into the birds could possibly enter your bodies too. The European Union banned the use of synthetic hormones in animals bred for meat way back in 1981. However, similar legislation hasn’t hit American shores yet. If the poultry you consume did indeed have such hormones in them, there are concerns that they could affect you too. The poultry farmers, however, say that given the time needed for these hormones to actually start taking effect (which is beyond the normal time of about five weeks needed for a broiler to reach market weight), it doesn’t make financial or practical sense to actually use them. Which is why, some say, you’re unlikely to find poultry injected with growth hormones nowadays.7 Added to that is the FDA stance on this, which says that the natural occuring as well as synthetic hormones of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone given to animals like cows and sheep should be safe for human consumption any time after the animal is treated with the hormone. Checks and controls like submissions to the FDA from each manufacturer help ensure safety. For instance, one requirement is for the manufacturer to show that the levels of hormone remaining in the edible tissue once the treatment is given to the animal remain within the prescribed safety limits.8 If you’re still unsure or skeptical, there are some alternatives you could consider.
But Are There Alternatives?
Free-range chicken is usually suggested as the best alternative to broiler chicken. Done right, it should mean the chicken is older at slaughter age. So unlike broilers it is also given access to fresh air, making it healthier, and is less likely to contract infections due to better spaced out living quarters. Which in turn means it doesn’t have to be as pumped up with antibiotics as the average broiler. At present, just about 1 percent or less of chickens reared in the United States are free-range.9 Because this takes more time and effort and the cost for rearing each bird is higher due to both the facilities as well as the greater age at slaughter, these chickens are usually more expensive to buy. But with your health on the line, it may be a price that is well justified. Of course, this isn’t a guarantee, but you could lower your risks with the shift.
How To Stay Safe
Needless to say, the numbers on foodborne illnesses are worrying. The chances of you or someone you know contracting an infection are fairly high. But there are some simple things you can do to improve the odds. If you do have to buy broiler chicken(and it may not always be possible to get around), work with the assumption that it contains some harmful bacteria. That way, you’ll take the extra precautions you need to kill the bacteria by cooking it right.
Here are some things to do to cut your risks.10
- Avoid letting raw chicken come in contact with other foods you are cooking, especially salads or fruit which you’ll eat raw.
- Cook the chicken to a temperature of at least 165˚ F.
- Invest in a kitchen thermometer to ensure you’re cooking it to the right temperature.
- Decontaminate and wash up all knives and chopping boards or dishes in which you’ve kept raw chicken. Use soap and warm water and rinse well.
- Put the raw or cooked chicken away into the fridge immediately if you are not consuming right away. Germs can contaminate food in as little as two hours if not frozen or refrigerated.
- Ensure your refrigerator is set to a temperature of 40°F or lower.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Broiler Chicken Industry Key Facts 2016. National Chicken Council.|
|2, 10.||↑||Be Food Safe: Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning. CDC.|
|3.||↑||Foodborne Germs and Illnesses. CDC.|
|4.||↑||Dangerous contaminated chicken. Consumer Reports.|
|5.||↑||Jørgensen, F., R. Bailey, S. Williams, P. Henderson, D. R. A. Wareing, F. J. Bolton, J. A. Frost, L. Ward, and T. J. Humphrey. “Prevalence and numbers of Salmonella and Campylobacter spp. on raw, whole chickens in relation to sampling methods.” International journal of food microbiology 76, no. 1 (2002): 151-164.|
|6.||↑||Salmonella and Chicken: What You Should Know and What You Can Do. CDC.|
|7.||↑||Esquivel-Hernandez, Yajaira, Ricardo E. Ahumada-Cota, Matias Attene-Ramos, Christine Z. Alvarado, Pilar Castañeda-Serrano, and Gerardo M. Nava. “Making things clear: Science-based reasons that chickens are not fed growth hormones.” Trends in Food Science & Technology 51 (2016): 106-110.|
|8.||↑||Steroid Hormone Implants Used for Growth in Food-Producing Animals. FDA.|
|9.||↑||The Life of:Broiler chickens. Compassion in World Farming.|