As always, news this week centered on the perpetual question — what is in our food? For the past seven days the media was focused on livestock. The New York Times in particular has taken up the issue of industrial chicken. Last week Nicholas Kristof reported on arsenic in our chicken for the Times and this week he wrote about the state of industrial eggs. Times reporter Stephanie Strom also chimed in with an article on E. Coli levels in grocery store chicken. But ultimately, the FDA’s (mostly) positive announcement about voluntarily phasing out livestock antibiotics overshadowed all unsettling chicken-related stories.
The Problem With Grocery Store Chickens
According to a study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 48% of a small sample of store-bought chicken contained E. Coli, which is a possible indicator of fecal contamination. The study looked at 120 samples of over a dozen brands of grocery store chicken from 10 cities. Conventional chicken samples contained 48% E. Coli, and antibiotic-free chicken didn’t fare much better, with E. Coli present in 46% of samples. The authors of the study state ominously in the conclusion, “While consumers are counseled by the USDA to apply high cooking heat to poultry products, this treatment simply cooks the feces along with the muscle tissue and does nothing to remove it from the ingested product.” Strom’s New York Times report on the subject is no more comforting. She quotes director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, Dr. Michael Doyle, saying, “What’s surprising to me is that they didn’t find more.” But she does report that the study was criticized for its assumption that the E. Coli was a definite result of fecal contamination. Naturally, the National Chicken Council responded, calling the study “misleading.”
In case this study left you thinking twice about shopping at your local grocery store, Kristof’s piece on egg processing is enough to send you running to the nearest farmer’s market. On Wednesday, Kristof reported that the Humane Society would publicize the findings of an undercover investigation into Kreider Farms. Kreider is a massive industrial egg producer that churns out millions of eggs a day for major supermarket chains. Needless to say, what the investigator found wasn’t pretty. He reported mice on the conveyor belts amongst the eggs, piles of manure, chickens crammed into cages, and automatic feeding carts that occasionally decapitated the chickens. A representative from Kreider told Kristof that the accusations were a “gross distortion of Kreider farms, our employees and the way we care for our birds.” To back up his allegations, the undercover investigator took this disturbing footage during his six-weeks undercover at Kreider (don’t watch while eating chicken).
The FDA on Livestock Antibiotics
This week the FDA announced its plan for veterinary drug producers to limit the availability of over-the-counter antibiotics in an effort to curb their use in livestock production and the subsequent rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The only catch — the plan is voluntary. The FDA hopes to stop the common practice of using antibiotics for “production” purposes and instead make them available only for treating sick animals under veterinary supervision. Currently, 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to animals, and their constant use can lead to the emergence of fatal superbugs like MRSA (a potentially deadly staph bacteria that kills more Americans a year than AIDS). Not everyone is pleased with the voluntary nature of the FDA’s proposal. Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News quoted Congresswoman Louis Slaughter (D-NY) saying, “Nonbinding recommendations are not a strong enough antidote to the problem.” Advocacy groups like The Union of Concerned Scientists and The Center for Science in the Public Interest expressed similar concerns. The FDA first talked about restricting the use of livestock antibiotics in 1977, but so far this is the only major step they’ve taken toward that goal.