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Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Guest Contributor

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Does Poultry Production have a Sustainable Side?

In recent years, the poultry industry’s portrayal of chicken as a low-fat and healthy alternative to beef has bolstered consumer demand for it.  Today, the average American eats more than 50 pounds of chicken per year, roughly double the amount consumed just 20 years ago.  But though chicken now costs only about one-third of what it did two decades ago, the environmental and human health considerations of commercial poultry industry practices are more costly than ever. 

By supporting green poultry producers, you help to counteract the detrimental effect that the commercial poultry industry has on its animals, the environment, and the poultry industry workforce.

The large-scale production of poultry for mass consumption is an unsavory business–unsanitary conditions are rampant in the nation’s processing plants.  TheChicken Factory Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million instances of foodborne illness and more than 5,000 food-related deaths occur annually in the U.S.  Unsanitary conditions in intensive chicken farms, which are breeding grounds for diseases such as Salmonella and E. Coli, are largely to blame for these alarming statistics.

The best way for a conscious consumer to ensure that he or she chooses the most sustainable poultries available is to research the conditions of the poultry production process . . . . whenever possible, support local producers whose operations you can observe for yourself.  Reducing your poultry consumption also plays an important role in diminishing your environmental impact.

Animal Welfare Issues, Environmental Implications, and Unfair Working Conditions

Nearly ten billion chickens and half a billion turkeys are hatched in the U.S. annually.  Birds are raised by the thousands in airless factory warehouses where they can barely move, and where lighting is manipulated to make birds eat as often as possible.  Let’s look at some of the health concerns that arise from these growth methods:

  • Genetic selection ensures fast-growing, heavy, and large-breasted birds.  In the 1940’s, 12 weeks were required for a chick to reach market weight—today, most chicks take only six to seven weeks to achieve the same weight. 
  • Several health and welfare problems related to over-rapid and unsynchronous growth rates are common among these birds—many suffer crippling skeletal and musular disorders, motor impediments, and heart failure as a result. 
  • Under such unhealthy conditions, illness among birds is common.  Millions of pounds of antibiotics are administered to chickens each year, who metabolize only a small percentage of the drugs fed to them, and these antibiotics make their way into manure that then passes into crop land and leaches into waterways.

Baby ChicksMuch of the  widespread pollution of American waterways and groundwater sources is directly attributed to the three trillion pounds of waste produced by factory-farmed animals.  In parts of northwestern Alabama—the center of the U.S. chicken industry—many streams are so polluted with chicken and livestock waste that they are off-limits to swimming.  Other environmental implications of intensive poultry farming include the considerable natural resources required to feed the chickens that we eat.  It takes about 660 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken, including the skin and bones.  The U.S. poultry industry uses 96.5 billion gallons of water annually—enough water to satisfy the yearly needs of about 4.5 million Americans!  Added to the hefty water requirement is food supply—it takes approximately six pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken.

Grueling and treacherous working conditions and low wages await workers in our nation’s poultry processing plants.  Here are some other effects of this dismal truth:

  • Workers required to move at ever-increasing speeds suffer repetitive motion injuries as well as lacerations from knives and saws, and sometimes limbs are lost in machinery.
  • Production managers aim to operate at maximum speed at all times, and USDA-regulated processing rates, have steadily increased over time—chickens today speed past workers on assembly lines at approximately 80 a minute.  Strict work rules on the plants limit bathroom breaks.
  • Efforts by workers to unionize are frequently squashed under threats of termination, and workers rarely receive compensation for workplace injuries.  Companies routinely fail to report injuries and deny claims that injuries occur.

Organic and Freen-Range Poultry

An organic label on poultry in the market indicates that the bird lived in quite a different world from the intensive production environment discussed above.  To be certified organic, chickens and turkeys must be fed a diet containing certified organically grown grain that has not been treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

An organic label also ensures that the chicken was never given any antibiotics and was raised humanely in a stress-free environment, having ample room to move about and daily access to fresh air and sunshine outdoors.

A "free-range" label on poultry means that the bird raised for meat was given U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified access to the outdoors.  Access to outdoors isFree Range Chickens the only criteria.  Environmental quality, size of indoor or outdoor area, and the number of birds confined to one area are factors excluded from consideration of this term.  This means that a free-range  turkey or chicken may never even go outdoors.  Many chickens called "free-range" birds live in large sheds with only one small opening at the end, allowing only a few birds to go outside at a time.  These outdoor areas can be sparse gravel yards and the poultry can still be sold as a free-range product.

The best way for a conscious consumer to ensure that he or she chooses the most sustainable poultries available is to research the conditions of the poultry production process.  Check the online farmer database at Food Alliance to find a sustainable chicken or turkey supplier near you.  Always research your organic and free-range chicken and turkey producers, and whenever possible, support local producers whose operations you can observe for yourself.  Reducing your poultry consumption also plays an important role in diminishing your environmental impact.

Article Conctributors: Julie Reid  





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