Whenever Dr. John Blake hears someone assail modern-day poultry industry, he’s often reminded of one of the most compelling books he ever read about a time when meat was collected, dressed and sold in a radically different way than it is now.
“Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper” recounts the life and times of Eldred Nathaniel Woodcock, a seasoned Pennsylvania outdoorsman who made a living for more than half a century hunting and trapping animals for downtown Philadelphia food markets.
For Woodcock, this not only involved killing the animals but also gutting them onsite, tagging their carcasses and dragging them to the roadside, where they eventually were loaded on wagons and carried to downtown markets.
“When you shopped at a downtown Philadelphia market in the 19th century you didn’t choose among meat from animals raised in a feedlot — you only could choose from among the meats that were available on that day, if it happened to be bear, venison or rabbit.”
“None of it was farm-raised; none of it was inspected; none of it passed through the food system that we all take for granted today,” says Blake, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System poultry specialist and Auburn University professor in the Department of Poultry Science.
A Critical Lesson for Consumers
He and his colleagues say consumers should draw a critical lesson from this account.
“It’s interesting because it puts the last 100-plus years into perspective — where we started and where we are today in terms of processed foods, whether it happens to be poultry, beef or pork,” Blake says.
Throughout their careers Blake and other members of the Extension poultry team have been trying to debunk what they consider to be unfair, if not baseless, accounts about how poultry are raised and processed. In the end, though, they contend that the answer is best expressed in terms of how much has changed since Eldred Woodcock trudged through the forests with his rifle and animal traps more than a century ago.
“Not too long ago, the issue was about finding food, not so much how it looked or where it came from,” says Extension specialist and Auburn Poultry Science Professor Sarge Biligili.
Expanding population growth rapidly outstripped the ability of hunters and trappers to supply basic food needs. In time, market forces and scientific research were brought to bear on this problem, leading to what we know today as the U.S. poultry industry, Bilgili says.
The U.S. poultry industry produces between 170 and 175 million chickens a week to meet demand.
A Dynamic System
Blake describes this system as dynamic to underscore the fact that the industry, by its nature, requires continuous upticks in productivity and unrelenting innovation to stay ahead of consumer preferences.
One example of how this dynamic system has evolved and innovated to meet changing expectations involves antibiotic use.
The Antibiotics Issue
Decades of experience have underscored the value of raising chickens in an environmentally controlled space — a poultry house. But this requires administering antibiotics to the chickens—a practice that has sparked harsh criticism in some quarters.
“The reason we provide antibiotics is because of the chickens’ proximity to each other in the poultry houses,” Bilgili says. “It’s like a school vaccination program.
“We vaccinate children because they are in close proximity to each other within a confined space. It’s the same with chickens.”
Poultry team leader Dr. Joseph Hess, an Extension specialist and Auburn poultry science professor, says that the industry has managed to overcome part of this challenge, partly through advances in poultry genetics.
“We’re producing chickens that mature at a faster rate, and once they reach a certain size, they don’t need antibiotics,” says Hess.
As a result, the final two feeding rations, which comprise between 50 and 60 percent of the chickens’ intake in the course of their lives, are now antibiotic free. Team members credit the industry with going a long way toward reducing antibiotic use substantially in response to consumer views — a change confirmed by routine residue testing of the product.
“This has resulted in a product with the cleanest bill of health of any other product in the livestock industry,” Bilgili says. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration not only monitors poultry feed but also requires producers to document all facets of feeding.”
The Purpose for Recalls
Another area of poultry production that has drawn criticism is associated with the occasional outbreaks and recalls stemming from the presence of pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and listeria on raw chicken products.
“None of these pathogens make chickens sick, but they have the potential to end up in the final product,” Bilgili says, adding that the U.S. poultry system has developed a sophisticated system that encompasses microbiological monitoring and voluntary product recalls to reduce risks to consumers.
“On the food safety side, we have an industry that is highly regulated, with federal regulators supervised by a veterinarian at every plant, inspecting every chicken that passes through the system,” he says.
“Even in spite of these advances, when you produce 170 million chickens a week, you’re going to have occasional recalls,” Biligili says. “But consumers should understand that these recalls not only demonstrate that our system is responsive but also that it is working as it was intended to do.”
Team members stress that all raw meat products, even processed ones, carry risks.
“We all want safe food products — and this industry produces among the safest products in the world, Bilgili says, “But we need to understand that when we take home a raw meat product, we should respect what we have by handling it carefully to avoid cross-contamination and cooking it thoroughly.”
While all the poultry team members concede there is room for improvement, there is one fact of which they are dead certain: Modern poultry production will never be completely replaced by traditional forms of poultry meat and egg production, whether organic or free-range.
Even as they acknowledge the appeal of these practices and provide education to many aspiring homegrown poultry producers, these experts say that conventional poultry processing will continue to supply as much as 80 percent of consumer needs.