By Michele C. Hollow
For the first time in recent memory, Americans are consuming more chicken per person than beef. The typical adult now chomps around 60 pounds a year of the birds and the chart below makes the trend clear. If you’re among those visiting the Colonel or other poultry purveyors, your reasons probably have to do either with chicken’s reputation as a healthier source of protein or its lower cost. Indeed, chicken is lower in fat than beef, making it potentially less of a contributor to cardiovascular disease. And some studies have associated chicken with a lowered risk of colon cancer.
But not all chickens are created equal—or are equally healthful—as WhoWhatWhy learned from an investigation of how chickens are raised in the United States. Due to a combination of selective breeding and rearing practices, chickens today grow at an absurdly unnatural pace: three to six times faster than they did 60 years ago. The chickens of today are scientific reconstructions of yesteryear’s birds. One farmer put it bluntly: “We’ve successfully bred most chicken out of the chicken.”
Supersized Baby Chicks on the Menu
To understand how much chickens have changed, it is instructive to look back at the early 1900s. In 1925, it took 16 weeks to raise a chicken to 2.5 pounds. Today, chickens weigh double that after just six weeks. According to a study from the University of Arkansas, if humans grew at a similar rate, after just two months, a 6.6-pound newborn baby would weigh 660 pounds.
“Chickens are suffering as a result of genetic breeding,” said Bruce G. Friedrich, senior policy director at Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization with sanctuaries in New York and California. “They are sent to slaughter when they are about six weeks old, chirping like babies. They have massive upper bodies, and are being genetically bred to grow six times faster.”
The reason they are bred with top-heavy bodies is because breast meat is in more demand than dark meat. “Chickens are much fatter and have to be filled with antibiotics [in order] to be kept alive today,” said Friedrich. “It’s true,” agreed Suzanne McMillan, senior director of ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare. Her report on the plight of factory farm chickens explains: “Because of their immense size, many birds cannot support their own weight, are unable to stand or walk, and they can die of dehydration or hunger just inches from food and water.”
These out-sized chickens are often found toppled over, lying in their own waste, with open sores and infections. “These unhealthy conditions could potentially increase the risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella,” McMillan explained. In fact, a 2010 Consumer Reports analysis of fresh, whole chickens purchased at stores nationwide found that two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease.
What This Means for Our Health
According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock. This has raised alarm in numerous quarters.
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