If you’re the kind of consumer who carefully scrutinizes meat packaging and picks out free-range organic poultry at the grocery store, you’ll definitely want to read this article by the staff at ProPublica: Your Free-Range Organic Chicken May Have Been Processed at a Large Industrial Poultry Plant. It contains important information about the poultry industry that some may find rather shocking.
The good news is that free-range organic chicken is still worth buying over the cheaper factory-farm alternatives, since the former is the result of more humane treatment of the animals, not subjecting them to overcrowded conditions and antibiotics. However, if one of your assumptions about factory farming vs organic is increased potential to contamination (ie. salmonella), you may have to scrutinize the packaging beyond the seemingly trustworthy brand name or a label that says, “free-range organic”.
ProPublica managed to crowdsource data from nearly 900 of their readers about chickens and turkeys sold at grocery stores throughout the country. They did this through their ingenious Chicken Checker app, which shows the levels of salmonella that the USDA found at the plant that processed the poultry in question based on a federally required mark on the package known as the “establishment number” or the “P-number” .
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Their research concluded that a majority of poultry in the US, no matter where and how it is farmed, is processed by a handful of companies. This article examines the practices of these small number of processing plants and their effects on consumers. Some of these processing plants handle birds from different farms that are sold under different brand names. So a Foster Farms processing plant in Fresno, California, handles chickens that contain the Foster Farms, the O organics, the Simple Truths Organic and Kirkland Signature Organic labels. This increases the potential risk of cross contamination of meats from different farm sources, which is particularly important with regards to salmonella, the bacteria that hospitalizes and kills more people in the United States than any other foodborne pathogen. Determination of salmonella rates at processing plants, as issued by the USDA, is a very important part in determining the safety and quality of the meats you are purchasing.
Additionally, processing plants often service stores thousands of miles apart; Organic or religious (ie. kosher or halal) doesn’t mean salmonella free. The most widely used disinfectant sprayed on chickens in these processing plants is dangerous to workers applying and washing it off and is likely to be banned by OSHA in the near future; and all of this information increases the importance of the proper handling, preparing and cooking of raw meats for consumers.
Journalism and research studies influence consumers’ preferences by raising awareness around food production, safety and preparation, which in turn can influence government regulatory agencies and meat processing plants to take more responsibility for their products.