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So What's Good About Poultry?

We're eating more poultry than ever. Some may wonder if this is a good thing. Here are questions you may have about poultry—the answers may surprise you.

Are you better off eating chicken or turkey than red meat?

Yes. Poultry has less fat and fewer calories, especially when the skin is removed. Breast meat is lowest in fat and calories. Dark-meat poultry (thighs and legs) has two to three times as much fat as breast meat and 25% more calories. It’s true that chicken fat is not as highly saturated as beef fat, but it is still not a “good” fat. The fat on breast meat is easy to remove. And while high consumption of red meats and processed meats has been linked to increased risk of colon cancer and possibly other cancers, this link has not been found with poultry. Nevertheless, the healthiest diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and include some fish) and lower in animal products of all kinds.

How can you be sure the poultry you buy is free of hormones and antibiotics?

You need not worry about that. In contrast to beef, it’s against the law to use hormones in raising poultry (factory-farmed or organic) in the U.S. Antibiotics are sometimes used to prevent disease, but must be withdrawn prior to slaughter so that no residues remain in the meat. The USDA routinely inspects poultry for antibiotic residues. The real worry is that overuse of antibiotics by the meat and poultry industry may lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

What contaminants are in poultry? Why do you have to be so careful when preparing it?

Salmonella and Campylobacter are two potentially deadly strains of bacteria found in raw chicken. They are responsible for millions of cases of food poisoning and hundreds of deaths each year. Contamination can occur at the farm or at any stage in processing, from slaughtering to packaging. Consumers have no choice but self-protection: always cook poultry thoroughly. In addition, make sure the poultry’s leakproof wrappings are intact at the market, never allow poultry juices to contaminate other foods, use soap and warm water to wash all surfaces and utensils that come in contact with raw poultry, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling. Most poultry now comes with labels explaining these steps.

What’s the difference between farm-raised and organic chicken?

All poultry is raised on “farms,” so “farm-raised” means little on a label. According to the National Chicken Council, “farm-raised” birds sometimes come from small or local operations. Certain retailers or restaurants may insist on local suppliers. However, the USDA organic label on meat does have a specific meaning: the animals are raised on 100% organic feed; no antibiotics have been used; and animal welfare must be promoted (a rather vague provision). But slaughtering methods are the same no matter how the chicken was raised, and that’s where most contamination occurs. Factory farming, which means that large numbers of birds are confined in small spaces, is becoming more prevalent in the organic industry. Whether raised in small or large batches, almost all poultry is slaughtered in large, federally inspected plants.

Are free-range chickens more flavorful or nutritious? What about these new, expensive “pastured” chickens?

The free-range label means the birds have access to an outdoor pen, via portals on the poultry house. They may never go outdoors, and you shouldn’t picture them roaming free in a big yard. Consumers may imagine that free-range chickens have been treated more humanely than those in factory farms, or have had better feed, but this is not necessarily the case. “Pastured” chickens, sometimes sold in high-end markets, are also raised in cages, but the cages sit on grass and are moved from time to time. There is no evidence that chickens labeled “free-range” or “pastured” taste better, are more nutritious, or get more humane treatment than other birds.

Are free-range and organic chickens safer than factory-farmed birds?

No. People may assume that these labels mean “safer,” but a study last year in the Journal of Food Protection found that out of 14 lots of free-range chickens, 64% of samples tested positive for Salmonella, and in one lot 100% were contaminated. Other studies have yielded similar findings. A Dutch study found that dangerous bacteria were actually more prevalent in organic chickens than in others. In any case, for safety’s sake, you have to handle all poultry the same way. No matter what the label says or how much the product costs, all poultry can be contaminated by disease-causing bacteria. As USDA researchers stated in the Journal of Food Protection in 2005, “consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.”

What is air-chilled chicken?

All poultry meat must be cooled after slaughtering, usually in an icy chlorinated water bath. Air-chilling is another method: the birds are hung in a cold chamber for a longer period than when a bath is used. It has been claimed that air-chilling reduces bacteria, but the results of studies have been inconsistent. A study in 2000 at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln found slightly lower risk of Salmonella contamination in air-chilled chickens—though when it did occur, the bacterial counts were higher. The National Chicken Council claims that water-chilling is just as safe. Air-chilled poultry usually costs twice as much as water-chilled. There really is no reason not buy it, but you have to be just as careful when handling it.

Is kosher poultry safer or better than other chicken?

No. The term simply means that the chicken was slaughtered by hand according to a set of religious dietary laws and under rabbinical supervision. Salt is used in the processing, and only cold-water rinses. The salting process may kill some bacteria, but kosher poultry is as subject to bacterial contamination as non-kosher—maybe more so. It also has as much fat. It is not necessarily more flavorful.

Are most conditions at slaughtering plants safe and sanitary?

No. Many critics feel that industry regulations are far too lax and that the public should demand cleaner practices, including humane treatment not only of animals but of the humans who do the work. The USDA regulates slaughterhouses, checking birds before and after slaughter (about 70 birds per minute for two inspectors in high-speed plants). Many tasks are automated. Electrical stunning, throat-cutting, scalding, de-feathering, gutting, and chilling are done by machines. Workers tend these machines and do part of the work, especially gutting. Everything is done at the highest possible speed, including cutting poultry in pieces by hand. Chicken feces may contaminate wash water. Plants are damp, cold, and noisy. Workers stand for many hours. Wages are low, injury rates high. A Human Rights Watch report on meat and poultry plants in the U.S. classifies these industries as hazardous (based on injury rates, close quarters, and poor training).

A working paper last year from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine said that “poultry processing has among the highest occupation illness rates of any private industry.” Runoff from poultry farms and processing plants creates serious environmental problems in many states. You may want to buy organic poultry out of environmental concerns or in the hope that the animals have been treated humanely, but poultry is poultry, and slaughterhouses are neither safe nor sanitary.

Nevertheless, the poultry in the market is safe to eat when properly handled and cooked. Chicken and turkey, particularly skinless white meat, are nutritious sources of lean protein, and also inexpensive compared with other meats.



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