Chicken has been in the news lately, and to be honest, it’s making me a little nervous. My big sister, ever looking out for me, first brought my attention to an article that came out in late July. Entitled “DC Farmer’s Markets highlight an array of food safety issues,” the three budding journalists working as fellows in a journalism program seemed bent on flexing their exposé muscles and set up a Marine-cum-farmer named Jordan to be the fall guy for local chicken. The story has been recently picked up and recirculated with expanded reporting by several other media outlets.
Ironically enough, they targeted the farmers’ market run by the USDA itself, right in its parking lot in D.C. They bought a chicken from vendor Jordan, popped it in a cooler, and then dropped it off at a lab for testing, along with a couple of other chickens they had picked up at supermarkets.
The whole thing reeked of “Big Chicken” to me. I can just imagine some Big Chicken public relations guy planting the bug of a story idea in the ear of one of these journalism fellows. Heck, maybe they even offered to foot the bill for the lab testing. Because even though sales are up, the image of Big Chicken continues to suffer from the exposure it receives on documentaries like Food, Inc. A little comeuppance wouldn’t be beneath them, I’m sure.
But that’s just the creeping paranoia of a clueless farmer wrangling with seemingly intentionally murky poultry regulations and the cryptic responses of USDA officials charged with explaining them. “That’s an interesting question,” one of the officials said to me repeatedly throughout the conversation I had with her last month about our chicken operation. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you for sure,” she added more than once.
Back to the story. So Jordan’s chicken turns out to have a bit of salmonella on it. Turns out so do the other two samples from the grocery store. But the spin of the story takes the tone of, “See, local food is no more safe than conventional food!” Ta-dah!
The fact that all samples are tainted is cause for concern. It’s why those “safe poultry handling” instructions are on all packages of chicken nowadays. A 2010 Consumer Reports article shared the results of lab tests on nearly 400 whole broiler chickens bought from 100 supermarkets in 22 states: two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. It hasn’t always been that way. Why now?
My bedtime reading this month has been a book called “Spoiled: The dangerous truth about a food chain gone haywire.” It was written over a decade ago, when the Jack-n-the-Box outbreak brought food safety to the national stage. The author spells out in great technical detail the whys and hows about bacteria in our food. Here’s the scoop on salmonella in poultry, in a nut (or shall I say egg) shell: Intensive chicken farming practices enabled the rapid spread of bacteria through thousands and tens of thousands of birds at a time. The bacteria got so cozy in this environment that it made itself at home in the very ovaries of chickens, to the point where many chicks are born infected and live quite happily unaffected by it. It’s why we suddenly are not supposed to lick the cookie dough spoon or order our eggs sunny side up.
Regardless of where you get your chicken, make sure to cook it to 165 degrees F, and wash everything that raw poultry has been in contact with thoroughly. Picking up your chicken last at the farmer’s market, just like at the grocery store, is also a good idea.
It’s true there is no inherent reason that your local pastured poultry producer will sell you a cleaner chicken than Big Chicken. We get our chicks from a hatchery in Pennsylvania, and the owner, Kendall, told me that they place thousands of chicks a month. It stands to reason that some of those chicks are going to carry some bacteria, because it’s present in the environment, in wild birds and animals as well as those raised for consumption.
But it also stands to reason that raising just a hundred–or even a few hundred–birds at a time, outdoors on fresh pasture so that they are never on the same ground for longer than a day or so, may contribute to lower infection rates. The sun is a strong disinfectant, and on our farm, pastures renew themselves for at least six months before chickens run free on them again. We also wash down their moveable coops between flocks, and clean out their waterers and feeders frequently. We can do that because we keep our chicken operation small and manageable, which we do precisely because we want to keep our chickens safe, happy, and healthy.
I was thrilled to see Jordan’s cutting response to the article on their website. As a former Polyface intern and U.S. Marine, he articulates the trials and joys of being a pastured chicken producer better than I can. For he and his wife, as well as for Amir and I, it’s not just about safety, it’s also about respect for the animals that feed us that is a driving motivation for what we do.
As our friend Margaret Hutcheson of Sunrise Gardens shared, “The chickens have a happy life and one bad day.” I don’t think the same can be said about the chickens in Big Chicken confinement houses. In the meantime, I still lick the spoon from my cookie dough. Afterall, I can see the hens that laid the eggs for it right out of the kitchen window. But then, I’m a risk taker, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this clueless farming business, right?
And Jordan, keep up the good fight. We’ve got your back, friend.