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Friday, June 29, 2012

Organic Chicken...Really?

I eat a lot of chicken. At first, I bought organic chicken because “everyone” told me it was better for me and I just assumed “they knew.” Then, as I studied to become a nutrition consultant, I learned why it was better.  Recently, I found an even more compelling reason to eat only organic chicken:

Contaminated Chicken

The New York Times recently reported that two new studies suggest farmers may be feeding chickens with feed laced with drugs like Tylenol, Prozac, Benadryl and antibiotics.  Are the groups making these claims, attempting to create hysteria surrounding commercially raised chickens to further an agenda on behalf of organic poultry growers or is there something to this?  Is it true? If so, why is this happening?
Two new studies by Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of
Public Health and Arizona State University found that chickens and turkeys from factory farms may be ingesting caffeine, Benadryl, arsenic and several antibiotics that have been banned from use in poultry feed for years.  The studies were published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology and Science of the Total Environment.

To determine levels of banned substances scientists conduct an analysis on something called “feather meal.”  This is a test done on the chicken’s feathers, (similar to human fingernail testing used to determine the accumulation of certain chemicals.) They found caffeine, antihistamines, acetaminophen, fluroquinolones, (a group of broad-spectrum antibiotics derived from nalidixic acid (FLUORO- + QUINOL(INE) -marketed as Cipro, Levaquin and others.)  Prozac, (found mostly in chicken imported from China), was added to feed because stressed out chickens produce tough meat and harsh conditions in the chicken’s environment can make for a constantly nervous chicken (I’m not making this up.)  The New York Times also reported that chickens are fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them up longer so they eat more food (how sinister.)

If anxiety, harsh conditions and long hours can produce tough chicken, I can only imagine what my internal organs look like.

Healthier fats

Another reason for sticking to organic chicken is that it contains healthier fats, according to Peter Melchett, policy director at the UK’s Organic Center, organic chicken contains higher levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids and more omega-3 fat, which can lower bad cholesterol. Organic chicken was also found to have 65 percent less abdominal fat than conventional chicken, as well as better muscle mass development.

A large amount of what a chicken consumes, is transferred to its eggs.  That’s why   chickens who eat a diet that has been supplemented with flax seed-typically golden (vs. dark) flax produce “Omega 3 eggs.”  These are now available in most supermarkets. Flaxseed is a plant-based omega-3 (alpha linolenic) fat source with many health benefits.

Unfortunately, overall, taste tests have not found organic chicken to taste any better or be any juicier than chicken grown by commercial chicken growers.

Certified Organic

To be labeled “organic” a product must meet certain requirements. In the case of so-called organic chicken, chickens must be fed organic feed grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides, and not given hormones or antibiotics to be certified organic. Organic chickens will be labeled with the USDA Organic Seal.  But chickens labeled all- range, free-range, and hormone-free are not necessarily organic.  What is the difference?  Chickens fed with organic ingredients produce an “organic” chicken.  Organic feed typically contains ingredients such as: organic whole corn, whole organic wheat, dried organic milk, organic fish meal, oyster shell, salt and/or cod liver oil.  Flaxseed may also be added as mentioned above.

This has nothing to do with how the animals are kept, however.  Many believe that chickens raised in tightly packed cages and never allowed to move freely, amounts to an animal cruelty, (and is probably the source of their “anxiety.”)  Furthermore, when investigated by sources outside of the world of agriculture such as author Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, chickens that have been labeled as free range or cage free, are often never seen let out of their cages.

As always, do your homework…but be grateful that we have choices.  Looks like Whole Foods will be getting even more of my money.

Sources:  New York Times, Mother Nature Network,,

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