The Hidden Health Hazards of Eating CAFO Chicken
May 30, 2015
By Dr. Mercola
Despite the well-documented health and environmental hazards, most consumers are still unaware that well over 90 percent of all chicken meat and eggs sold in the US come from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Most people are also unaware that CAFO foods are very different, from a nutritional standpoint, from animals raised on pasture, and that while they may be inexpensive at the checkout line, there are significant hidden costs, including the cost to your health, associated with this kind of food production.
One hidden health hazard is foodborne illness, which last year alone struck more than 19,000 out of a population of 48 million residents across 10 states.1 The most frequent foodborne infection was caused by salmonella, accounting for 38 percent of reported infections.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) attributes nearly 133,000 illnesses each year to contaminated chicken parts. Frontline cites an even higher number, claiming salmonella contaminated chicken sickens an estimated 200,000 Americans each year.
An even greater risk is contracting an antibiotic-resistant illness, which is occurring more and more these days. Antibiotic resistance is driven by the routine practice of feeding food animals antibiotics.
Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US, so it’s a significant source of antibiotic exposure, and it’s the continuous use of low dose antibiotics that permits bacteria to survive and become increasingly hardy and drug resistant.
In 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 39 percent of raw chicken parts.
Multiple-drug resistance is also on the rise. Between 1973 and 2011, there were 55 antibiotic-resistant foodborne outbreaks in the US, and more than half of them involved pathogens resistant to five or more antibiotics.2
CAFO Chicken Linked to Salmonella Outbreaks
Salmonella is frequently associated with chicken, and Foster Farms, one of the largest poultry companies on the US West Coast, has been the source of a couple of the most severe salmonella outbreaks in the past decade.
The case of Foster Farms is heavily featured in Frontline’s documentary “The Trouble with Chicken,”3 which reveals what makes CAFO chicken such a hazardous choice.
Salmonella Heidelberg, a particularly virulent strain of salmonella, has sickened several hundred people between 2004 and 2014. The strain was traced to Foster Farms, yet no punitive action has ever been taken against the CAFO—a fact that seems remarkable when you consider how many people have been affected.
As reported by Oregon Live:4
“State officials pushed federal regulators to act, but salmonella-tainted chicken flowed into grocery stores, first in the Northwest, then across the country. Oregon investigators became so familiar with the culprit they gave it a name: the Foster Farms strain.”In the last outbreak, which lasted 16 months, from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014, chicken from this CAFO sickened more than 600 people.5 Foster Farms got a fair share of bad publicity in 2014. One plant was threatened with closure due to the presence of salmonella contamination.6
Yet, another of its processing plants was shut down by government mandate7 when a cockroach infestation was discovered during a Food Safety inspection.
Still, the company got off lightly, while unsuspecting consumers have paid with their lives. “The Trouble with Chicken” features Amanda and James Craten, whose 18-month old son Noah contracted severe salmonella infection in October 2013 after eating Foster Farm’s chicken.
The infection spread to his brain, causing a life-threatening abscess requiring an emergency craniotomy. The Cratens blame their son’s brush with death on Foster Farm’s failure to issue a timely recall. While reports of illness had emerged in March 2013, the company didn’t issue a recall until July of 2014.
Should There Be a Zero Tolerance for Salmonella Contamination?
As the scale of production and distribution has grown larger, the potential for foodborne illness to affect greater numbers of people, across a wider area, has also grown.
Another major part of the problem is that as production has grown in scale, bacterial contamination has become increasingly problematic, yet food inspection practices have not changed. USDA inspectors still focus on visually inspection of the food, and you cannot determine a food contamination based on what you can see.
Food inspectors do test for bacteria, but only sporadically. According to Frontline, inspectors typically test less than one bird per day, even though plants may process hundreds of thousands of birds each day. The testing also doesn’t measure how much salmonella is present. Nor does it differentiate between innocuous and dangerous strains of salmonella.
Curiously, while the poultry industry reports that rates of salmonella contamination have actually gone down, rates of human salmonellosis have remained stable. As noted in the video, this is a clear indication that the industry’s standard for salmonella contamination is wrong—it’s still far too high.
What this means is that a company can be in compliance with the food safety standards and still be responsible for a salmonella outbreak, which is what happened in the case of Foster Farms.
Since the company was meeting USDA performance expectations, the agency didn’t have the power to force a recall; it was left up to the company to voluntarily recall their tainted chicken and it was resistant to doing so.
The question is, is there even a safe level of salmonella in chicken? Some say no, there isn’t, and are pushing for a zero tolerance on pathogenic salmonella strains like Heidelberg.
It’s important to realize that whole poultry is permitted to contain a certain level of salmonella—and there’s NO set level for chicken parts. Since salmonella is so prevalent, you should assume any store-bought chicken is contaminated, and handle it accordingly. In fact, the USDA expects you to destroy any present pathogens through safe handling and proper cooking.
The fact that chicken parts are more prone to carry dangerous salmonella was just realized during the last Foster Farms’ outbreak. Inspectors originally could not find any salmonella in the whole chickens, and struggling to understand how so many people were getting sick after eating Foster Farms chicken, they started testing chicken parts, such as legs, wings, and breasts. As it turned out, one in four parts were in fact contaminated with salmonella. Since cutting the chickens into parts requires more processing, there’s more room for pathogens to spread, so from a consumer standpoint, it would be wise to consider buying whole chickens rather than ready-cut pieces, as they’re less likely to be contaminated.
Chlorine-Washed Chicken Is Another CAFO Hazard
The US is known for a number of processing practices that other nations will not allow. One of them is washing chicken in chlorine, which is done to reduce the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria like salmonella. We already have a problem with antibiotics causing antibiotic-resistant "super germs" when used in the animals' feed, and giving them an antimicrobial bath might just make the problem worse.
Workers in the plants have also reported health problems from the chemical washes, including asthma and other respiratory problems. Not to mention it's unclear how much of the chlorine residue remains on the chicken when you eat it.
In the European Union (EU), the use of chlorine washes is not only banned, but they won't even accept US poultry that's been treated with these antimicrobial sprays. Both the USDA and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claim that giving chickens a chlorine bath is safe, but that's not enough to convince many Germans, who are among the most vocal opponents to a free trade agreement between the US and EU. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could generate an estimated $100 billion a year in economic growth for both the US and the EU, but many Germans believe a trade agreement with the US would compromise their food safety and quality. According to Reuters:8
"The phrase 'Chlorhuehnchen,' or chlorine chicken, has entered the parlance of everyone from taxi drivers to housewives since trade negotiations began a year ago. An Internet search for the term generates thousands of results, bringing up cartoons of animals dumped in vats of chemicals and stabbed with needles. A majority of Germans believe chlorine-washed chicken is a danger to human health despite its successful use in the United States to kill bacteria, according to survey by pollster Forsa."
Follow Safe Handling Instructions for Raw Chicken
It’s important to realize that the burden of preventing food poisoning from Salmonella rests on you, the consumer. The USDA expects you to properly handle and cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, so that any contamination present will be killed. Clearly, your risk of foodborne illness is magnified if you fail to follow safe handling instructions. For example, washing your chicken increases your risk of food poisoning, as it allows dangerous bacteria to spread around your kitchen.9,10
Another important safety tip is to designate separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables. Do not cut vegetables on the same cutting board you just used to prepare your chicken (or other meats). Besides avoiding cross contamination in your kitchen, also make sure you cook the chicken thoroughly, to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria.
More Tips to Avoid Food Poisoning
Aside from purchasing your food from high-quality, small-scale sources, the best way to protect yourself from a food borne infection is to strengthen your immune system. This is ideally done through daily lifestyle choices that support your overall health, such as:
- Avoiding sugar -- especially fructose -- grains, and processed food, and eating plenty of organic raw foods
- Getting plenty of restorative sleep
- Finding a way to diffuse the stress life throws at you (my favorite tool is EFT)
- Incorporating plenty of regular exercise each week
- Optimizing your vitamin D through sun exposure, or supplementation, if needed
- Taking a high-quality probiotic, which will help populate your gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria—your best defense against bad bacteria like salmonella
We Can Change the System One Family at a Time...
Food safety is, I believe, just one of many reasons to opt for locally produced foods rather than CAFO brands sold in grocery stores. Besides safety, organic, grass-fed, and finished meat, raised without antibiotics and other growth-promoting drugs is really the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view. The following organizations can help you locate healthy farm-fresh foods in your local area that has been raised in a humane and sustainable manner:
- Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
- Eat Wild -- With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eatwild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
- Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.