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Just How Healthy IS that Chicken You're Eating?

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Photo by Andrea Levora Photo by Andrea Levora

And what can you do about it?

If you’re one of the many Americans looking to eat healthier, then chicken is probably a staple in your diet. Considered to be chock full of some essential nutrients, while also containing less fat than other meat-based sources of protein, roasted, skinless chicken breast is a healthy eater’s dream.

Or is it?

Most people have heard the warnings about the need to wash utensils and countertops where raw chicken has been before using the same for other food. Fewer really understand why.

The why is salmonella, a bacteria that can cause salmonellosis, a potentially fatal disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than a million people each year contract salmonella poisoning, with 25,000 becoming sick enough to seek hospital treatment. Five hundred will die. 

Or maybe the ‘why’ is campylobacter, which the CDC estimates poisons around 2.4 million people every year. Although more prevalent than salmonella, it is also less deadly; the estimate is that only 124 will die from ingesting this bacteria. The bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever it causes, while better than death, is something most people will want to avoid.

The why could even be E coli. Yes, it’s not just for hamburger and raw cookie dough anymore. Escherichia coli 0157:H7 does not grow in the gut of chickens, as the previous two bacteria do. Instead, chickens become contaminated when exposed to feces containing the bacteria.

E coli is considered to be the cause of most enterobacterial infections in the U.S., and it’s estimated you will suffer one of these infections, on average, one and a half times every year. 

A 2009 study by Consumer Reports showed that two-thirds of birds they purchased in grocery stores in 22 states harbored either salmonella or camplyobacter. Catching recent attention is a study in Canada, where two-thirds of the supermarket chicken purchased not only harbored bacteria, but the bacteria were all resistant to at least one antibiotic, and some were resistant to as many as eight different antibiotics. Surprisingly, the Consumer Reports study showed much the same.

These are not the type of bacteria a sane person wants to ingest.

And that organic label isn’t necessarily the protection you might think it is. Consumer Reports testing revealed that purchasing organic chicken from the supermarket was not, in terms of bacteria, necessarily better. Only 47 percent of the name brand organic chicken tested clean, while Perdue brand chicken came out the best, with 56 percent testing clean. (You can read the report here) One thing to look for? According to the report, air chilled broilers are a better bet. “These broilers are subjected to cold air, and sometimes mist, to inhibit microbial growth,” they wrote. “As a group, the 32 air-chilled birds we analyzed, all of them also organic, proved especially clean.”

So what’s a nervous chicken-eater to do?

Locally, there are several places that sell organic, free-range or organic and free range chickens. No matter where you live, your best bet is to check with your local farmer’s market, or farmer’s market website, to find vendors providing the type of meat you prefer. (Organic chicken generally means chicken raised without antibiotics or medicinally-laced feed. Free range chicken refers to chicken allowed to roam freely instead of being penned closely together, and may or may not qualify as ‘organic.’) 

Although not ‘local’ for all of our readership, for years I have heard glowing praise for Rich and Jessica Royal’s ‘beyond organic’ chickens.

The Royals are in Thompson Falls, Mont. and raise Cornish Cross hens—around 350 of them for the discriminating buyer. These hens are raised inside for two to three weeks, then outside penned on grass for another five to six weeks. They are fed only fresh, organic feed. You can reach the Royals at 406-827-4285; the pre-ordered chickens must be picked up the day they’re processed.

Those willing to put a little more effort into their food—particularly the chicken part of their diet—might consider growing their own. Despite the current cold temperatures and falling snow, spring really is around the corner, and growing chicks into meat birds might be easier, and take less time, than you think. Certain breeds of birds are ready for butchering in just eight weeks.

I talked with Kathy Osborne at the Ponderay Co-Op about raising chickens. She’s an old hand at it, having grown up in the area with chickens in the back yard, and she continues that rural tradition today by maintaining her own flock. Kathy is quite knowledgeable about chickens, as are a number of the Co-Op staff; they are a great resource should you choose to go this route. Or, if you’re not close to Ponderay, go in and meet the employees at your own local farm and garden store; it’s likely they can give you more information than you thought you wanted.

“Do some research,” Kathy said, “to determine what breed of chicken you want to buy.” Various types of chicken have been bred for specific characteristics, and if your only purpose is to obtain meat, then you want a bird that puts more of its growth energy into creating meat than into creating eggs.

For most meat chickens, you’re not really looking at a breed but at a hybrid. These chickens put so much energy into making meat they can literally eat themselves to death. Let these chickens live much beyond six weeks and their legs, unable to carry their own weight, will break.

If you don’t like that thought, you’d probably prefer a heritage chicken; if so, you really need to talk to your supplier. Not only will these chicks need to be special ordered, they will take longer to reach maturity, requiring a greater time investment to raise.

Regardless of which breed of chicken you buy, you’re going to need to provide the same basics: heated shelter, food, and fresh water.

Your first step into becoming a backyard ‘farmer’ is to check your local ordinances to see if poultry are prohibited within your given city limits. 

Shelter requirements are not huge: you can easily raise 25 chicks to butcher weight in a garage (minus vehicles) or small outbuilding or even an enclosed porch area (some people even do so in other rooms of their house) but there are some simple basics that are required.

First, choose an area that can be easily cleaned. Kathy recommends laying down large sheets of cardboard or a tarp on your given surface, and covering with pine shavings for bedding.

Your new coop needs to come equipped with an electrical outlet as an important requirement for baby chicks is heat, and lots of it. A heat lamp over their ‘nesting’ area will help keep things at a toasty 95 degrees, which will allow the chicks to grow and thrive. This heat can be reduced, by raising the lamp, once the chicks get their second feathers, but any good chick raising area is likely going to end up being the warmest part of your house.

With your chicks safe and warm, your main role is going to be supplying plenty of food and fresh water. The way chicks turn into a plump, roasted bird in the oven is through plenty of food: chicks can eat a lot! 

And for the most part, that’s it. Feed, water and watch your chicks grow and, when they reach butcher weight, send them off to a professional. (Mary Taylor does this locally, by appointment only. You can call her at 208-263-4725.) To be truthful, it’s not ‘difficult’ to butcher a chicken, but this is not something you want to try right off the bat. Before taking on this chore, work with someone experienced at doing so.

What should be obvious by now from reading this is that you don’t raise your own chickens to save money. The CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) conditions that contribute to bacterial contamination of the chicken in stores also make that chicken incredibly inexpensive to buy. When you eat a chicken you’ve raised yourself, the money invested in that chicken will easily be double or triple the money spent on a store-bought chicken.

Although prices vary by store and by breed, each chick you purchase will cost around $2.50. It will cost that much again to have the chicken butchered. Figure about nine bags of chick starter for 25 chickens; prices range around $17 for a 50-pound bag. Add in bedding and by the way... plan that not all your chicks will live to butcher weight. Growth for hybrid meat birds is so fast that generally some will keel over from a heart attack before they make it to 7 weeks.

You’re also going to have to purchase supplies though, if you continue to raise chickens for meat, that cost can be spread out over the years. Plan on one or two heat lamps with reflective shields, light bulbs, a large waterer and a large feeder, a thermometer to make sure you’re keeping the temperature at the right level, and whatever materials you use to construct your ‘coop.’

Cost aside, however, it’s hard to find someone who raises poultry who does’t love it. Andrea Levora, whose chicken “Cocky” illustrates this story, writes “We’ve raised meat chickens and often raise pigs—one lamb and love the fresh eggs from our chickens.

“I can definitely taste a profound difference in the food we raise versus the food we purchase,” she added. “As such, it’s very difficult for me to buy meat in the store.”

Cocky, by the way, the chicken in the photo, is an Ameraucana, a breed raised mostly for the blue eggs it provides. 

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Thompson Falls, Co-Op, Kathy Osborne, chicken, salmonella, bacteria, salmonellosis, campylobacter, food poisoning, E Coli, organic, Consumer Reports, free range, Rich and Jessica Royal, Ponderay, raising chickens, meat birds, backyard farmer, Andrea Levora

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