Chicken farmers and producers take pride in the care of their broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat), and the fact is that chickens are as healthy as they’ve ever been. But we know it’s on us as an industry to do a better job of providing more information about how our chickens gets from farm to table and the welfare guidelines for broiler chickens – so we wanted to provide information on a few topics that you may have questions about.
Antibiotics are just one of many tools farmers use to keep their flocks healthy, in order to contribute to a safe and wholesome food supply. Today, all chicken farms are under a health program designed by a licensed veterinarian. But just like people, animals sometimes get sick, and treating illness is a responsible part of animal care. When this happens, farmers work with animal health experts and veterinarians to determine if an antibiotic is needed. The vast majority of the antibiotics that we use are never used in human medicine, and we’re taking steps to phase out those most critical to human medicine.
Chicken producers are committed to innovation, and the work that farmers and veterinarians are doing to ensure the safety and health of their flocks – and thereby our food supply – creates a vast amount of choice for consumers. Whether consumers choose to spend their food dollars on traditional chicken, organic or chicken raised without antibiotics, they can be confident in its wholesomeness and safety. As this trend continues to grow, consumers will have more choice than ever in the chicken they choose to purchase, and through ChickenCheck.In, we hope to provide consumers first-hand access to the information they’re looking for in order to make informed purchasing decisions.
Chickens today are in fact bigger! As the demand for chicken as a protein has increased, farmers have worked to create larger and healthier chickens – to meet that demand over the past few decades.
In the 1920’s, the average chicken at market weight was 2.5 pounds and the U.S. population to feed was 115 million. Today, through improvements in breeding, nutrition, veterinary care and bird health, chickens have healthier organs and stronger limbs. In addition to providing broiler chickens with healthier nutrition, the use of vaccines and better living conditions have also improved chicken health and overall growth rate. All of these improvements mean farmers are able to raise bigger and healthier birds to feed today’s growing U.S. population of approximately 320 million.
A chicken’s growth rate is measured by how long it takes the chicken to reach market weight after it hatches. Most of the chicken meat available today comes from flocks that are bred to be bigger and grow faster than in years past – growing to market weight in about 48 days on average. “Slower-growing” chickens or “Heritage breeds” are not bred to convert feed to muscle as quickly, and so can take almost twice as long to reach market weight – around 81 days.
You might be surprised to learn that there are no artificial or added hormones used in the production of U.S. chicken. In fact, the use of such hormones is expressly forbidden by law by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Note: Labels that read: “Raised without hormones” must also include a statement saying that no hormones are used in the production of any poultry raised in the United States.
Chickens are not “crammed” in houses. Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) live in growout houses, which – as their namesake implies – provide enough space for chicks to literally “grow out” into full sized chickens. In fact, the houses are built in a way that each bird can eat, drink, rest and move around freely.
By nature, as the old saying goes, birds of a feather tend to flock together – a behavior that can sometimes give the impression that the birds are crowded, when in fact they’re just following their natural instincts.
You might see “cage free” labels on packaged chicken meat that you purchase at the store. However, no chicken you buy is raised in a cage. The majority of chickens raised for meat in the U.S. live in large, open structures called houses where they are free to walk around. Others, including free-range chickens, have varying access to the outdoors, based on farmer preference.
Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) are always raised by farmers trained in animal welfare.
Farmers and employees are trained in handling and caring for chickens in order to provide a safe, healthy and low-stress environment. If caught mistreating the chickens, they are subject to immediate disciplinary action, including termination and prosecution.
Just like humans, birds can get the flu. “Avian influenza,” “avian flu” or simply “bird flu” is a disease that affects birds, including poultry like chickens, turkeys and ducks. It is caused by a virus that is passed from bird to bird through their saliva, nasal secretions and/or feces. Other susceptible birds pick up the virus by directly touching the infected bird’s fluids or by touching a surface that has been contaminated by the fluids.
There are two classifications of bird flu – low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Birds who contract LPAI sometimes don’t show any symptoms or show mild ones, like ruffled feathers or lower egg production. Birds with HPAI suffer more severe symptoms similar to symptoms of human flu like lack of energy or appetite, lack of coordination, coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions, and can cause rapid death.
“Woody breast” describes a quality issue stemming from a muscle abnormality in a small percentage of chicken meat in the U.S. This condition causes chicken breast meat to be hard to the touch and often pale in color with poor quality texture. “Woody breast” does not create any health or food safety concerns for people and the welfare of the chicken itself is not negatively impacted.
White striping is a quality factor in chicken breast meat caused by deposits of fat in the muscle during the bird’s growth and development. It is similar to marbling in red meat. White striping is not a food safety issue nor does it affect the welfare of the chicken.
Chlorinated chicken – or chlorine-washed chicken – refers to chicken that has been treated with an antimicrobial rinse in order to remove harmful bacteria from the raw product. Numerous studies and research have confirmed that the use of chlorinated water to chill and clean chicken is safe and effective. Chlorine-washed chicken does not pose any human health concerns and it is not present in the final product.
Hypochlorus (i.e. chlorine) is a common disinfectant used in water treatment and food processing worldwide. Although it is proven safe, a lot of U.S. plants have moved away from chlorinated water in their chilling systems and rinses, opting for alternatives.
All chicken produced in the United States is closely monitored and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
A contract farmer is an independent farmer working under contract with a chicken production and processing company to raise chickens. More than 90% of all chickens raised for meat in the US (broiler chickens) are raised by contract farmers.
The company with which the farmer contracts provides the chickens, the feed, veterinarian care and technical advice, while the poultry farmer provides the day-to-day care of the birds, land and housing on which they’re raised, and utilities/maintenance of the housing. This partnership (a key part of vertical integration) supports the economic viability and independence of the family farm while ensuring efficiency and consistency in modern poultry production.
Salmonellosis (the infection humans get from ingesting salmonella) can be caused by eating undercooked meat, poultry or eggs, cross contamination in the kitchen, or not properly cooking or washing raw vegetables.
Given that Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, the vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience.
But we want that experience to be safe each and every time. So let’s look at what salmonella is, what the chicken industry is doing to make sure your chicken is as safe as possible before it gets to your grocery cart, and what steps you can take in the home to prevent salmonella from spreading.
The best way to ensure chicken is safe to eat is by cooking it until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit – this kills any possible bacteria on the raw meat, including salmonella. Looking at the color of cooked chicken is not a definitive way of checking temperature – so always be sure to use a food thermometer.
After chicken is cooked, it should be refrigerated within two hours at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooked chicken should be eaten within 3-4 days.
According to the USDA regulations, free range means that chickens have access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day, whether the chickens choose to go outside or not. Chicken labeled as “organic” must also be “free-range,” but not all “free-range” chicken is also “organic.”
Since 1996, farmers in animal agriculture, including poultry, have fed genetically modified grains (corn) and oilseeds (soybeans) to their flocks and herds with U.S. government oversight. Since more than 80 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are raised from genetically modified seeds, almost all corn and soybean used in conventional livestock and poultry production is genetically modified.
After more than 20 years of research, there has been no scientific evidence of any compromise to animal health whatsoever from the ingestion of genetically modified feed ingredients. In fact, since 1996, overall chicken health has improved and U.S. production has increased by 43 percent.
Products carrying the USDA Certified Organic seal must meet the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board for organic growing, production, handling, storage and processing practices. These standards prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics, and require the use of feed made from organic ingredients, including organic grains. Most practices at the processing plant are the same for chickens raised organically or conventionally, though processing aids and sanitizers used in organic processing must be approved for organic use. The organic food label does not indicate that the product’s safety, quality or nutritional attributes are any higher than the conventionally raised product.
Under USDA regulations, a “natural” product has no artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives, and is minimally processed, just enough to get it ready to be cooked.
Broiler chickens (the type raised for meat) generally take up to seven weeks to reach market weight. Once they’ve reached the proper size and weight, workers trained in humane care arrive to catch each chicken at the farm, by hand. To help explain the rest of how chickens are slaughtered and processed for meat, we’ve broken it down into 10 steps.