Illo by Stuart Bradford/Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports has just released the findings of its analysis of 525 fresh, whole broiler chickens purchased in 23 states last spring—83 percent harbored campylobacter or salmonella, which colonize the birds’ intestines and are the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease that sickens 1.1 million or more Americans each year. (Interestingly, this was a “stunning increase” from its 2003 findings, where 49 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.)
The spiral-shape campylobacter has seemingly wriggled onto more chickens than ever, because although the U.S. Department of Agriculture tests chickens for salmonella against a federal standard, no such standard exists for campylobacter. (CR insists that there now should be.)
The biggest surprise: Overall, chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics (and costing $3 to $5 per pound) were more likely to harbor salmonella than were conventionally produced broilers that cost around $1 per pound1. (Tested were 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process supposedly designed to reduce contamination.)
Most of the bacteria CR tested from contaminated chicken (both conventional and no-antibiotics) showed resistance to one or more antibiotics, including some fed to cluckers to speed their growth, as well as those we’re prescribed to treat infections. This wasn’t unexpected even in the no-antibiotics birds, says CR, because “those germs are widespread and can persist in the environment.”
Without knowing more about the magazine’s methodology, there’s not much I can say about its results, which seem to run counter to what we’d expect from organic animal husbandry. (Should we blame big-box organics for the dilution of stricter standards; who knows?) I mean, it’s no skin off my nose personally since I’m vegetarian, a position that’s proving increasingly merited in light of news that cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry are the world’s greatest environmental threats.
But even CR concedes that you should purchase any meat directly from small farmers, via farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs, so you can engage in a dialogue with the farmer about how the animals are raised, what they eat, and so forth. And of course, CR’s analysis doesn’t take into account the fact that organically raised livestock isn’t force-fed pesticide-soaked, genetically modified corn feed mixed in with ground animal parts, or kept so tightly confined that they are unable to shuffle more than a few feet for their entire lives. (More reasons for eating organic meat here.)
Alright, I’m going to rip out the ol’ bleeding heart here: Organic animals are raised more humanely—with a species-appropriate environment to roam—and are fed well-rounded and nutritious diets that boost their health (and by that same token, yours) significantly. Smaller farms also means less manure, which is a human-health risk because any overspill can contaminate our water sources with E. coli and other pathogens. In just one region of North Carolina, for instance, hog farms produce 10 million metric tons of waste annually. That’s A LOT of poop to scoop.
And organic meat? Well, as far as I can tell, it’s not just a load of crap—which is more than I can say for some of the health and environmental policies in this country.
1One exception was Ranger, a no-antibiotics premium brand sold only in the Northwest, which CR found to be “extremely clean.” Of the 10 samples it analyzed, none had salmonella, and only two had campylobacter.