Mass-Produced Chicken Poses Health, Environmental Risks

Why did the chicken truck cross the road? To spray you with resistant bacteria.

January 27, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Recent studies point to the environmental impact of factory-farmed poultry. In one, published in this month’s Journal of Infection and Public Health, cars driving behind open-crate poultry trucks taking livestock from farms to slaughterhouses were contaminated with harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains. A second analysis suggests that poultry plants are significant polluters.

THE DETAILS: Johns Hopkins researchers took air and surface samples from cars driving behind poultry trucks for 17 miles. The cars’ air-conditioners and fans were turned off, but the windows were fully open during the ride. Bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics were found on and in the cars, but were absent from cars not driven behind the chicken trucks. The authors note a probable link between the antibiotic-resistant bacteria and concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), where as many as 2 million birds are raised in confinement and routinely fed antibiotics to survive in such close proximity.


And it’s not just chicken-truck tailgaters taking in a whiff of unhealthy air. An Environmental Integrity Project analysis of recent studies found that the 10 largest chicken- and egg-producing U.S. states release more than 700 million pounds of ammonia a year—that’s more than all nonagricultural industries combined. The irritating substance can cause burns and eye, skin, throat, and lung irritation.

WHAT IT MEANS: With chicken such a popular food choice for people looking to save money and eat healthy, it’s important not to lose sight of the environmental costs of mass poultry production. So close your windows if you’re cruising near one of those trucks on the highway. That will protect you in the short-term, but the big problem remains: Animals raised in factory farms or feedlots are often pumped full of antibiotics, which is promoting the growth of resistant bacteria that don’t respond to some drugs used by people. While factory farming may result in cheaper chicken at the grocery store, hidden health costs (drug-resistant bacteria and the millions of pounds of ammonia that spew from the animal waste at these facilities) are important, hidden costs to take into account.

Here’s how to make better chicken choices:

• Go organic. Farmers who raise USDA-certified organic meat cannot use antibiotics or growth hormone in their animals, so buy organic chicken as often as you can. Visit the Eat Well Guide to buy directly from sustainable farmers near you. If you really want to make a statement, stop buying poultry from the grocery store—national brands sold there usually raise their animals in less-than-ideal situations. Ask your market to offer organic chickens from local farmers.

• Explore alternatives. Whether it’s chicken, beef, or possum, humanely raised, drug-free meat may be more expensive (well, maybe not possum). But you can try cutting out the middle man and buying directly from local farmers to save a few bucks. Also, don’t feel that you have to serve meat with every dinner. Check out the Meatless Monday campaign and the Rodale Recipe Finder for meat-free, healthy dinner ideas. You may find that eating better quality, more flavorful meat a little less often is more satisfying than having mass-produced mediocre meat with every meal.