We're eating more poultry
than ever. Some may wonder if this is a good thing.
Here are questions you may have about poultry—the
answers may surprise you.
Are you better
off eating chicken or turkey than red meat?
Yes. Poultry has less
fat and fewer calories, especially when the skin
is removed. Breast meat is lowest in fat and calories.
Dark-meat poultry (thighs and legs) has two to three
times as much fat as breast meat and 25% more calories.
It’s true that chicken fat is not as highly
saturated as beef fat, but it is still not a “good”
fat. The fat on breast meat is easy to remove. And
while high consumption of red meats and processed
meats has been linked to increased risk of colon
cancer and possibly other cancers, this link has
not been found with poultry. Nevertheless, the healthiest
diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole
grains (and include some fish) and lower in animal
products of all kinds.
How can you be
sure the poultry you buy is free of hormones and
You need not worry about
that. In contrast to beef, it’s against the
law to use hormones in raising poultry (factory-farmed
or organic) in the U.S. Antibiotics are sometimes
used to prevent disease, but must be withdrawn prior
to slaughter so that no residues remain in the meat.
The USDA routinely inspects poultry for antibiotic
residues. The real worry is that overuse of antibiotics
by the meat and poultry industry may lead to drug-resistant
are in poultry? Why do you have to be so careful
when preparing it?
Salmonella and Campylobacter
are two potentially deadly strains of bacteria found
in raw chicken. They are responsible for millions
of cases of food poisoning and hundreds of deaths
each year. Contamination can occur at the farm or
at any stage in processing, from slaughtering to
packaging. Consumers have no choice but self-protection:
always cook poultry thoroughly. In addition, make
sure the poultry’s leakproof wrappings are
intact at the market, never allow poultry juices
to contaminate other foods, use soap and warm water
to wash all surfaces and utensils that come in contact
with raw poultry, and wash your hands thoroughly
after handling. Most poultry now comes with labels
explaining these steps.
difference between farm-raised and organic chicken?
All poultry is raised
on “farms,” so “farm-raised”
means little on a label. According to the National
Chicken Council, “farm-raised” birds
sometimes come from small or local operations. Certain
retailers or restaurants may insist on local suppliers.
However, the USDA organic label on meat does have
a specific meaning: the animals are raised on 100%
organic feed; no antibiotics have been used; and
animal welfare must be promoted (a rather vague
provision). But slaughtering methods are the same
no matter how the chicken was raised, and that’s
where most contamination occurs. Factory farming,
which means that large numbers of birds are confined
in small spaces, is becoming more prevalent in the
organic industry. Whether raised in small or large
batches, almost all poultry is slaughtered in large,
federally inspected plants.
chickens more flavorful or nutritious? What about
these new, expensive “pastured” chickens?
The free-range label
means the birds have access to an outdoor pen, via
portals on the poultry house. They may never go
outdoors, and you shouldn’t picture them roaming
free in a big yard. Consumers may imagine that free-range
chickens have been treated more humanely than those
in factory farms, or have had better feed, but this
is not necessarily the case. “Pastured”
chickens, sometimes sold in high-end markets, are
also raised in cages, but the cages sit on grass
and are moved from time to time. There is no evidence
that chickens labeled “free-range” or
“pastured” taste better, are more nutritious,
or get more humane treatment than other birds.
and organic chickens safer than factory-farmed birds?
No. People may assume
that these labels mean “safer,” but
a study last year in the Journal of Food Protection
found that out of 14 lots of free-range chickens,
64% of samples tested positive for Salmonella, and
in one lot 100% were contaminated. Other studies
have yielded similar findings. A Dutch study found
that dangerous bacteria were actually more prevalent
in organic chickens than in others. In any case,
for safety’s sake, you have to handle all
poultry the same way. No matter what the label says
or how much the product costs, all poultry can be
contaminated by disease-causing bacteria. As USDA
researchers stated in the Journal of Food Protection
in 2005, “consumers should not assume that
free-range or organic conditions will have anything
to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.”
What is air-chilled
All poultry meat must
be cooled after slaughtering, usually in an icy
chlorinated water bath. Air-chilling is another
method: the birds are hung in a cold chamber for
a longer period than when a bath is used. It has
been claimed that air-chilling reduces bacteria,
but the results of studies have been inconsistent.
A study in 2000 at the University of Nebraska at
Lincoln found slightly lower risk of Salmonella
contamination in air-chilled chickens—though
when it did occur, the bacterial counts were higher.
The National Chicken Council claims that water-chilling
is just as safe. Air-chilled poultry usually costs
twice as much as water-chilled. There really is
no reason not buy it, but you have to be just as
careful when handling it.
Is kosher poultry
safer or better than other chicken?
No. The term simply means
that the chicken was slaughtered by hand according
to a set of religious dietary laws and under rabbinical
supervision. Salt is used in the processing, and
only cold-water rinses. The salting process may
kill some bacteria, but kosher poultry is as subject
to bacterial contamination as non-kosher—maybe
more so. It also has as much fat. It is not necessarily
Are most conditions
at slaughtering plants safe and sanitary?
No. Many critics feel
that industry regulations are far too lax and that
the public should demand cleaner practices, including
humane treatment not only of animals but of the
humans who do the work. The USDA regulates slaughterhouses,
checking birds before and after slaughter (about
70 birds per minute for two inspectors in high-speed
plants). Many tasks are automated. Electrical stunning,
throat-cutting, scalding, de-feathering, gutting,
and chilling are done by machines. Workers tend
these machines and do part of the work, especially
gutting. Everything is done at the highest possible
speed, including cutting poultry in pieces by hand.
Chicken feces may contaminate wash water. Plants
are damp, cold, and noisy. Workers stand for many
hours. Wages are low, injury rates high. A Human
Rights Watch report on meat and poultry plants in
the U.S. classifies these industries as hazardous
(based on injury rates, close quarters, and poor
A working paper last
year from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine
said that “poultry processing has among the
highest occupation illness rates of any private
industry.” Runoff from poultry farms and processing
plants creates serious environmental problems in
many states. You may want to buy organic poultry
out of environmental concerns or in the hope that
the animals have been treated humanely, but poultry
is poultry, and slaughterhouses are neither safe
Nevertheless, the poultry
in the market is safe to eat when properly handled
and cooked. Chicken and turkey, particularly skinless
white meat, are nutritious sources of lean protein,
and also inexpensive compared with other meats.