The other day, Smart & Final in Mountain View, CA had a manager’s sale on whole chickens. The price? Only $0.49 per pound. How can chicken be so cheap?
To put that in perspective, apples over the in produce section were languishing at $0.99 per pound.
Why is chicken so cheap?
One reason is that it is an advertising special designed to get people into the store, much like turkey prices are so low during Thanksgiving because the idea is that you’ll come into the store and buy so much more than turkey.
The real reason that chicken is so cheap has to do with the way chickens are raised in this country. China raises them this way too.
With lots of antibiotics. 80% of the antibiotics in the US go to animals, not people.
Antibiotics for healthy chickens
Chickens receive antibiotics for breakfast everyday, in their feed.
The chickens aren’t sick, but they receive antibiotics so that they they don’t get sick.
If chickens don’t get sick, they can be stuffed into barns with low light and live in crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
The gory details of factory farming, the other reason chickens are so cheap, can be found on the Farm Sanctuary website.
Chicken wasn’t always so cheap
Chicken was not always so cheap though. Nor did everyone eat it all the time.
In the early 1900s, the average American consumed less than 20 pounds of chicken per year. Now? The number has quadrupled to 80 pounds a year.
Before, chickens were a dinner time treat. They were spent hens that could no longer lay eggs and thus eaten. The average chicken’s life span is 6 years.
Now, chickens go to the market in 6 short weeks. Years of crossbreeding have led farmers to the ideal chicken that grows fast and feels no need to fly or perch.
This is the famed Cornish Cross. It is top heavy with succulent large breasts and little legs that can barely support it.
Overuse of antibiotics = sick people
The issue with heavy antibiotic use in livestock is that it can health effects that transfer to people.
You know how when the doctor always tells you to completely finish all the antibiotics in the bottle, even if your illness goes away? That’s so you don’t develop a resistance to it, and the antibiotic will be effective for future infections.
They don’t do that with chicken. Since chickens receive profuse quantities of antibiotics, some of them develop antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.
Those superbugs, as they are known, are ok living in a chicken’s gut. But once that bacteria travels to you, via cross contamination, poor food handling, or undercooked chicken, it’s a problem.
This did happen in 2013 with the nationwide outbreak of Salmonella. Over 640 people got sick from a salmonella strain traced to Foster Farms chicken.
Salmonella is such a huge problem in chicken because of that resistance. All chicken have salmonella in their gut.
If the chicken is not slaughtered properly, those contents can spill over to other body parts. If the chicken is not cooked properly, those salmonella bacteria can survive.
If the salmonella is a superbug strain resistant to some antibiotics, it will be harder for your doctor to treat and make the infection go away quickly.
Can you eat antibiotics?
Generally, no you will not ingest antibiotics that the chicken has been given. There is a mandatory withdrawal period the chickens must go through where they are weened off antibiotics.
The FDA also has testing protocols in place to ensure chickens at the grocery store do not contain harmful levels of antibiotic residues.
If you prefer to eat a more natural chicken, you would buy a “heritage” breed. This branding is also found in pigs, cows, and turkeys.
What to look for at the grocery store
There are other labels right on the package too that will help inform your bird buying decisions.
If you see Raised without Hormones:
IGNORE! It doesn’t mean anything because no chicken is allowed hormones. In cows and pigs, it is allowed but not chicken.
It is merely marketing ploy designed to make you believe the chicken has not been given synthetics.
If you see Organic:
Know that organic chickens are allowed to have antibiotics up to their first day of life out of the shell.
If you see Free Range:
It does not necessarily mean they were roaming free on green grass. It just means the chickens had access to the outside, whether they went outside or not.
The FDA does not have a strict definition of what constitutes free range, so it is not a reliable label.
It is better to look for pasture raised hens or buy from a local vendor with such designations.
If you see Raised without Antibiotics
You can rest assured that the chicken has not received antibiotics at all. What’s interesting is that some farms committed to humanely raising chickens on green pastures will use antibiotics only if the chicken gets sick. As such, they cannot use the Raised without Antibiotics designation.
Check out the Chickopedia from the Chicken Council for more details on these definitions.
For additional reading, Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna, published in 2017, has received praise spotlighting antibiotic use in the chickens.
Buy the best chicken you can afford
Whether the chicken is raised on green pastures or not given antibiotics at all, buy the best chicken you can afford.
Whichever chicken it is, be sure to cook it properly. Check out these food handling tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information.