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Big Chicken

Big Chicken

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POSTED April 5, 2018 12:32 p.m.

GAYS MILLS - I recently read a scary book.   It wasn't scary science fiction, it was scary science reality and I learned quite a bit from it.  The subtitle is "The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats". But the book's attention grabbing title is simply: "Big Chicken."

This 2017 book by Maryn Mckenna is a well-researched, even exhaustively researched, expose, with 66 pages of notes and bibliography in the 390 page book.  McKenna is an investigative journalist with a special interest in public health, global health, and food policy.

The reason the book is scary is that I eat a lot of chicken.   We all do. Chicken is the most popular meat we eat.  In the U.S. we eat an average of over 90 pounds of chicken per person per year, more than beef, more than pork.  This book opened my eyes to the ways animal agriculture has developed in recent years to meet increased consumer demand for meat. It's quite a story and it's an ongoing one.

Chicken, believe it or not, used to be a rare treat on American dinner tables, often showing up only on Sundays.  It was a bit awkward for the housewife to buy a whole chicken (for a long time the only way you could buy them), cut it up, cook and serve it.   And chickens of the past were smaller. They weren't big enough to feed the typical postwar family, with their several Baby Boomer offspring. 

So one early change in raising chickens was to develop bigger chickens with more breast meat.  Chickens breeders succeeded at this job spectacularly, creating chickens that would grow so big that their skeletons couldn't support them. There was a nation-wide contest to develop meatier chickens called the Chicken of Tomorrow. The new chickens also grew very fast.  The average age of a modern broiler is just 6 weeks, half the time earlier and smaller birds needed to grow.     

Poultry producers also expanded the variety of ways chicken could be purchased and consumed.  You can buy just drumsticks, for example, and also ground chicken, breaded chicken, and numerous other consumer, and especially cook-friendly ways that boost chicken consumption.  Chicken became a healthier option also as red meat was falling out of favor due to health (of consumers) considerations. 

Large numbers of chickens began to be raised in confinement, tightly crowded together in large specially designed buildings. This way of raising chickens is a big source of guilt for many poultry consumers. Crowded confinement brought about  problems in the form of diseases that thrived and spread in the crowded conditions.

The development of antibiotics after WWII dovetailed well into the burgeoning poultry business. Feeding antibiotics to chickens became routine and, key point: they got fed antibiotics whether they were sick or not.  Farmers found that they could grow birds much faster if they were routinely fed antibiotics from day one.  An unintended consequence of that practice has led to unwittingly developing resistant strains of bacteria in people, rendering the miraculous affects of antibiotics for human health problems much less effective.

Government regulations were extremely slow in coming to combat the overuse of unnecessarily medicated feed.  The resulting antibiotic resistance factor was very slow to show itself to the medical community.

Towards the end of the book the author detailed how many large poultry producers, in response to consumer demands rather than government regulations, have steered away from antibiotic use in chicken feed. She also profiled several farms that pay close attention to bird comfort during their short life spans.

All in all I learned a lot about poultry production by reading this book. By reading labels and buying carefully consumers can reward ethical poultry farmers and not be afraid of consuming poultry.

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