As a meatless eater, I’ve been following the recent Consumer Reports exposť on grocery store chicken with a mixture of disgust (because dang, 97% contamination with disease-causing bacteria is high), and relief (because hooray, thank goodness I don’t eat that stuff!).
But there are plenty of people I love who do, unfortunately, eat that stuff. As do the vast majority of Americans. And as a result, in the US, 48 million people will fall ill every year due to food poisoning caused by salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and other food-born pathogens. Poultry is the number one culprit.
According to Consumer Reports, 97% of chicken breast sold in grocery stores is tainted with harmful bacteria. What’s worse, at least half of the samples contained fecal contaminants, and half of them also contained at least one bacterium that was resistant to commonly-prescribed antibiotics. Multi-drug resistance is a serious global health threat.
According to samples taken by Consumer Reports scientists, dangerous amounts of bacteria were present in every brand of chicken that was tested, with no discernible differences in those labeled “Natural” or “Organic.” Over half the samples contained fecal contaminants (which are particularly worrisome), and E. coli was found in 65.2% of them. Again, this was across all brands and regardless of labels like “Natural” or “Organic.”
If this surprises you, you’re probably not alone. Many consumers expect that these labels actually mean something, in terms of quality or health. But more often than not, the consumer is just making an assumption. Because very few people know what’s required in order to earn such a label. What is “organic chicken,” really? Or “Natural” or “Non-GMO” or “Cage-Free”? What do these words really mean?
Organic: For chicken to be labeled “organic,” the animal must have been given non-GMO, exclusively vegetarian feed that wasn’t grown using synthetic pesticides. The chickens can be given antibiotics, as long as the antibiotics are deemed “medically necessary” — at the discretion of the farmer. The chickens must be given access to the outdoors, but with absolutely no standard or requirement as to size of the outdoor space, the size of the door leading to the outdoor space, or the amount of time the chickens are granted access to the outdoor space. Organic certification does not require any indoor enrichment, any additional indoor space, †any attention to indoor air quality, any regulation of light exposure (chickens are often illuminated continuously, which interferes with their biological rhythms), and does not require any sort of “humane” or special treatment during slaughter.
Humanely Raised: There is no standard definition or government regulation for this term, and therefore it is essentially meaningless. “Humanely Raised” chickens can be subjected to unrestrained antibiotics use, and can be fed a diet of GMOs, animal by-products, and food grown using synthetic pesticides. They are not necessarily granted outdoor access or indoor enrichment. They don’t get additional indoor space or improved air quality, they aren’t granted periods of darkness to rest, and there are no additional regulations regarding slaughter line treatment or slaughter line speed. †”Humanely Raised” means nothing.
No Hormones: There is, by law, no use of growth hormones in any chickens that are destined for US markets. Which means that this term, too, is essentially meaningless. “No Hormones” chicken could be conventionally-raised, factory farmed chicken.
Cage-Free: More marketing jargon, since literally all the chickens raised for meat in the US are raised outside of individual cages. This term lends no insight into the conditions the chickens are kept in, whether they are given access to outdoors, or how much space each bird is given.
Free-Range: A bit better than cage-free, but not much. The chickens can be raised totally conventionally, factory farm-style, except that they must be given access to outdoor space. However, there is no regulated definition of “outdoor space.” There are no rules governing the size of the outdoor space, the size of the door leading to the outdoor space, or the amount of time that door is open. As well, there are no inspections required to maintain such a label.
Natural or All Natural: The most dishonest, most manipulative label of them all. “Natural,” as applied to food packaging, indicates only that the product was “minimally processed,” and contains no artificial ingredients. In this case, it says absolutely nothing as to how the chickens were raised (what sort of conditions, how much space, etc), how they were fed (genetically modified feed sprayed with toxic pesticides, animal byproducts, etc), how they were treated (if they were given antibiotics, synthetic amino acids, etc), or how they were slaughtered.
The “Natural” label is so egregious because it’s so misunderstood. Of all the US residents polled by Consumer Reports, more than half believed that “Natural” chicken products were free from antibiotics and were never fed GMOs. Over 40% believed that the label meant the chickens were raised outdoors in pasture, and more than a third thought that “Natural” was synonymous with “Organic.” It isn’t. When it comes to chicken, “Natural” doesn’t mean much of anything at all.
So now you know that there’s a whole lot you don’t know — can’t know — when it comes to consumer health and quality control in poultry packaging. And if you’re going to buy it, you’ll need to do your own due diligence and make sure you follow proper safety precautions.
Or, you know, make it easy on yourself and just give up the meat completely. It’s so easy!