At Fields, a great deal of the chicken we sell is provided by the Natural Poultry Group, (NPG). This is because NPG is dedicated to producing chickens that are not only delicious but well cared for and hygienically raised. This not only ensures that we provide customers with the best quality meat, but it also allows us to bypass the poultry farms in China that sometimes have less scrupulous standards.
Like many parts of the Chinese food industry, chicken farming in China has spent some time under the spotlight for rather negative reasons, particularly in the last twelve months or so. It is a huge industry; China is the world’s second largest producer of chicken after the U.S., with revenue of $68.7 billion in 2012 and providing roughly 9.33 million jobs in the country.1 Thus, it is appropriate that when transgressions come to light they are viewed with increasing scrutiny.
Poultry farming the world over has long been a complicated issue; many now know the abhorrent practice of battery farming and have seen the harrowing pictures. But now, issues with chicken farming are a little different. In China, (and elsewhere), the problem has been the use of drugs, as well as a lack of hygiene, which played a role in the notorious spread of bird flu.
Late in December 2012, it came to light that farms in Shandong, (the province that produces just over a quarter of China’s chicken),2 had been feeding their chickens antibiotics and hormones on a daily basis to reduce death rates and encourage faster growth. Even worse, some chickens were fed antibiotics two days before slaughter. This was despite regulations stating that they are not to be given antibiotics in the week before slaughter so that they don’t remain in the chicken’s systems.3
An undercover CCTV investigation found that not only were chickens from some of these farms fed at least 18 antibiotics in order to grow by 2.5kg in just 40 days, but that some of them were selling these excessively altered chickens to KFC and McDonalds restaurants in the country,. And that even though the meat was probably tested, butchering companies simply fabricated results when testing the meat for quality.4 But what is it exactly that is so negative about rampant overuse of hormones and antibiotics on animals that we eat?
One of the problems with the use of antibiotics in chicken farming relates to the fact that some of them are meant for human consumption. They are used because they can prevent the spread of disease in the animals and enhance growth. But, if animals are over-fed antibiotics while they are being raised, (as is often the case in China),5 then there is a chance that humans who eat them will develop a resistance to their effects. This can, of course, have very negative effects for people who rely on them to fight illness.
One important example of the misguided practice relates to the frequent bird flu scares in Asia. It came to light during one of these scares that Chinese chicken farmers were dosing chickens with Tamiflu, a drug that had shown some effectiveness against the H5N1 virus. The problem was that while the drug stopped the birds exhibiting symptoms, they could still carry the virus itself. So in fact the overuse of Tamiflu simply made the virus harder to track.6 Another problem in China relating to outbreaks of disease has been a lack of adherence to hygiene guidelines, “with many slaughtering chickens bare-handed and some keeping poultry in overcrowded cages.”7
These problems aren’t endemic to China though; the U.S. also has a big problem with the use of drugs in poultry farming. In 2011, purchases of antibiotics for farming outnumbered those for the treatment of six people by four to one, and they weren’t for the treatment of illness, but for the same uses as in China.8
An illustration of the increases in size of chickens brought on by drug use
Poultry production in the U.S. is also suffering from a lack of regulation. There have been proposals to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves free of federal monitors, and it has been discovered that some of them are using drugs that are officially banned by the FDA; certain antibiotics and arsenic have been found in a great deal of samples despite the fact that they are explicitly banned from use.9 It’s also a big problem that “producers of meat and poultry aren’t required to report how they use the drugs, which drugs they use, on which animals and in which quantities”.10
A lot of these problems stem from a pressure to produce chickens quickly and cheaply. But, fortunately, not every farm indulges in the same cutting of corners. NPG, from whom Fields sources much of its chicken, is a group aware of the pitfalls of these modern farming methods, and thus keeps their chickens antibiotic and chemical free. You can taste the difference, but that’s not all; eating their chicken also allows you to consume chicken that is definitively safe and ethical. A welcome alternative to the uncertainty that can accompany eating unregulated poultry.