Health Hazards Associated with Consumption of Poultry
Produced by Industrial Methods in the USA or Elsewhere
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The many health hazards associated with consumption of poultry produced in the United States may be divided into two categories: (1) health hazards associated with consumption of any chicken flesh, and (2) health hazards associated with the methods of animal agriculture practiced in the United States. It is important to note that any chicken flesh produced using the methods of industrial animal agriculture which were first devised by the U.S. poultry industry may be hazardous to human health, regardless of the country of origin. In addition, certain hazards associated with chicken flesh are present regardless of the method of production. The safest strategy is to consume no chicken flesh at all, substituting healthful vegetarian sources of protein in the place of chicken flesh.
Health Hazards Associated with Consumption of any Poultry Products
Microbial pathogens (which include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi) found in chicken flesh can and do cause illness and death in humans. The most common pathogens in chicken flesh are salmonella and campylobacter. Salmonella is a bacteria which can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, chills, weakness and exhaustion. Campylobacter is a bacteria which can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. Infection by either of these bacteria can be deadly for children, the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems. As will be discussed below, chicken flesh from industrial poultry production operations has a high incidence of contamination with pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter. However, all chicken flesh is at risk and must be handled as if contaminated. Techniques such as refrigeration and complete cooking can lessen, but not completely eliminate, the risk of transmission of these and other pathogens to consumers.
2. Heterocyclic aromatic amines
Chicken flesh must be cooked in order to be edible to humans. However, the process of cooking chicken flesh leads to the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in the meat. These are cancer-causing compounds and have long been known to be one of the reasons consumption of meat is linked to cancer. A recent report from the U.S. National Cancer Institute reveals that oven-broiled, pan-fried, or grilled chicken flesh actually contains more of these carcinogens than red meat. The longer the meat is cooked, the larger the load of carcinogens in the meat. Grilled chicken contains 480 nanograms per gram of the carcinogen PhIP. PhIP is suspected as a cause of both breast and colon cancer.
3. Saturated fat
Excessive consumption of saturated fat is associated with heart disease and obesity. Obesity is related to diabetes and certain musculoskeletal disorders. Contrary to popular misconceptions, chicken flesh is not low in fat. Skinless roasted dark meat from chicken legs is 32 percent fat. Skinless roasted light meat from chicken breasts is 18 percent fat. Chicken with skin cooked in other ways may be up to 51 percent fat. The fat in chicken meat permeates the flesh; it cannot be cut away. The fat found in chicken flesh is saturated fat, which is the most dangerous kind of fat. While people need fat in their diets, the safest fats are those found in vegetable foods, such as olive oil.
Cholesterol is associated with heart disease and memory loss. Cholesterol affects the heart and the brain by collecting on the walls of blood vessels and thereby reducing the flow of blood. The cholesterol content of chicken flesh is similar to that of beef, approximately 25 milligrams per ounce. In contrast, foods made from plants have no cholesterol.
Health Hazards Associated with Consumption of Chicken Flesh
Produced by Industrial Methods
1. Antibiotic resistance
Chickens raised in industrial operations in the United States and other nations are typically fed or injected with antibiotics in order to stimulate unnaturally rapid growth. In the United States alone, 10.5 million pounds of antimicrobial medications are fed to chickens every year. These medications are excreted and then wash into groundwater and waterways, leading ultimately to the development of a variety of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. International trade and travel carry these “super bugs” around the world.
In addition, the antibiotics fed to chickens stimulate the evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens within the birds. These pathogens remain in the flesh and can be contracted by humans through contact with the blood or the uncooked meat. In a recent survey published by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found 13 different strains of salmonella in samples of ground chicken, beef, turkey, and pork taken from supermarkets in the United States. Of those strains of salmonella, 83 percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic and 53 percent were resistant to three or more antibiotics; 6 percent of the bacteria were specifically resistant to the antibiotic which is the treatment of choice for children with salmonella poisoning.
2. Increased incidence of food poisoning
Pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter thrive in overcrowded industrial poultry production facilities, where these bacteria are easily spread from bird to bird. In addition, the feed used by commercial poultry operations has been shown to be sometimes contaminated with salmonella.
In the factories in which chickens are slaughtered and processed, the fast pace and unsanitary practices associated with mass production expose chicken flesh to contaminants such as feces, bile, mucus, and partially digested feed, any of which might cause illness if ingested or even touched by humans. In the United States and other exporting nations, powerful corporations have prevented the implementation of effective inspection procedures which would identify and remove tainted meat. Meat is processed more and more quickly but inspection procedures have not evolved in response to the increased risk. Inspectors do not have access to the tools they need to identify certain pathogens or diseases and even obviously diseased birds are often not detected. As a result, contamination with pathogens is so common that health officials in the United States recommend treating all chicken flesh as if it were contaminated. A survey of 55 different studies concluded that approximately 30 percent of U.S. chicken is contaminated with salmonella and 62 percent with campylobacter.
3. Ingestion of potentially unsafe foreign matter
Mass production and transport introduces multiple opportunities for contamination. According to reports published by the Government Accountability Project, maggots and other insect larvae have been found in the storage and transport equipment of U.S poultry producers. Shipments of meat have been contaminated with a wide variety of foreign matter such as grease, metal shavings, and dead insects.
References & Sources of Further Information
Barnard, N.D. & Kieswer, K. (2000). Chicken: Run Away. Washington, DC: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Davis, K. (1998). Chicken for dinner: It’s enough to make you sick. Poultry Press.
DeWaal, C.S. (1996). Playing Chicken: The Human Cost of Inadequate Regulation of the Poultry Industry. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Earthsave International. What About Chicken?
Government Accountability Project. (1995). Fighting Filth on the Kill Floor: A Matter Of Life and Death for America’s Families. Seattle, WA: Author.
Government Accountability Project. (1996). Off the Job: Camouflaging Deregulation of Federally-approved Food Processing. Seattle, WA: Author.
Government Accountability Project & Public Citizen (2000). The Jungle 2000. Washington, DC: Authors.
Jaspin, E. (2000). Inspection experiment failed to catch diseased birds. Cox News Service.
Muirhead, S. (1995, Nov. 27). FDA survey shows low salmonella level in feed. Feedstuffs.
National Cancer Institute. (1996) Heterocyclic Amines in Cooked Meats.
Sinha, R., Rothman, N., Brown, E.D., Salmon, C.P., Knize, M.G., Swanson, C.A., Rossi, S.C., Mark, S.D., Levander, O.A., & Felton, J.S. (1995). High concentrations of the carcinogen 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo- [4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) occur in chicken but are dependent on the cooking method. Cancer Research, 55(20),4516-9.
White, D.G., Zhao, S., Sudler, R., Ayers, S., Friedman, S., Chen, S., McDermott, P.F., McDermott, S., Wagner, D.D., & Meng, J. (2001). The isolation of antibiotic-resistant salmonella from retail ground meats. New England Journal of Medicine, 345(16):1147-54.
This report was prepared in 2003 by Pattrice Le-Muire Jones of Global Hunger Alliance on behalf of its partner Eurasian Vegetarian Society.