With each passing year, humans have a greater impact on the environment than the year before. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of contaminated waterways in India more than doubled and by 2015 more than half of the nation’s rivers were polluted.
Every year an estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are sold worldwide and each year Americans alone throw out 15 million tons of clothing.1 Animal waste from factory farms also pose a significant risk to public health.
Communities near hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have higher mortality rates from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. CAFO animals are routinely fed antibiotics, which promotes drug-resistant bacteria.
Poultry products are frequently contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella, and have even tested positive for drugs that are banned or restricted in U.S. meat, including chloramphenicol, ketamine, phenylbutazone and nitroimidazole.
Geological Passage of Time Marked by Changes to the Earth
A paper in the Royal Society2 proposes we may have geologically entered the age of the chicken.3 In 1669, Nicolaus Steno described two basic geological principles becoming the foundation of an idea that geological processes are uniform in frequency and magnitude.4 This led to the development of a geological time scale, separated into eras, periods and epochs.
Today we are in the Cenozoic era, Quaternary period and Holocene epoch5 — that is until scientists announced the impact humans have had on the Earth has been so profound that a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, must be declared.6
An official expert group presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress at Cape Town, determining the new epoch should begin in 1950, as it was during this time radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests could define an array of other signals of change.
These signals of significant impact on the Earth included plastic pollution, soot from power stations and the bones left by the global proliferation of the domesticated chicken. The Holocene era marked 12,000 years of steady climate since the last ice age.
However, with striking acceleration of emissions and rising sea levels, experts argue this marks the end of this geological time period. Additional changes include the global mass extinction of species and the transformation of land by deforestation.
Experts continue to argue7 whether we have officially entered the Anthropocene epoch and humans have permanently changed the planet.8 However, despite the argument of whether the name should change, the fact remains humans have made an indelible and infamous mark on the Earth, especially with the industrialization of food manufacture and supply.
Mind-Boggling Number of Chickens Tell a Disturbing Tale
With a combined mass of 23 billion, the global chicken population is nearly three times the human population of the world.9 Nearly 65 billion chickens are consumed each year, and scientists believe this signature fossil of the modern epic may be what the future remembers about humans living today.
As archaeologists sift through the remnants of these years, it might be the broiler chicken that stands out, determining who we were and how humans shaped the world. At any given time, the population of chickens is at least 10 times more than any other bird. The second largest population of birds has an estimated number of 1.5 billion.
However, it isn’t just the mind-boggling number of chickens that will speak to the history of this time, but also the animals’ shape and genetic changes bred specifically for food. Carys Bennett, an honorary fellow at the University of Leicester and one of the authors of the essay, comments,10 “We have changed the actual biology of the chicken.”
Chickens were domesticated nearly 8,000 years ago, simultaneously in China and India. They reached North and South America in the 1500s with the Spanish explorers, but ancient Egyptians were among the first to master artificial incubation, allowing them to raise a larger number of eggs for food.
Prior to the 1920s, poultry was raised for fun in the U.S., mostly as a hobby. Henneries became commercialized operations following World War I and saved the day for thousands of farmers in the Midwest who suffered crop failures, labor shortages and price drops.
By the 1940s the chicken population in every American city was roughly half of the human population, leading to the current factory farms. It has become a sad state of affairs for an animal once revered by the Roman armies and affectionate enough to make a great pet.
Factory farming has represented the chicken’s final step as a protein producing commodity when as many as 20,000 to 30,000 broilers are crowded together in a windowless building. Selective breeding has made the broiler so docile even when given access to the outdoors, they prefer hanging out at a mechanized trough for the next delivery of feed.
Today the modern broiler chicken has an average life span of 5 to 9 weeks, and has nearly five times the mass of its ancestors. A genetic mutation has been bred into the animal to make it eat insatiably in order to rapidly gain weight.
However, this rapid weight gain makes the animal subject to numerous bone ailments and, in combination with a diet heavy in grains, the bones have a distinct chemical signature.
The Broiler Designed for an Industrial System of Meat Production
Chickens were once free to roam and peck away at the dirt for bugs and seeds, but are now completely dependent on an industrial system of meat production. Eggs are separated from the hens and artificially incubated where the chicks grow in a climate-controlled shed.
At no older than 9 weeks, the chickens are transported to a slaughterhouse. The authors write most of the chicken is used11 “where most waste products (feathers, manure, blood etc.) are recycled via anaerobic digestion, incineration and rendering into edible by-products, all technology-dependent.”
These scientists argue the greatest lasting sign of how we have changed the world will be the broiler chicken in its number and strangeness, as compared to the original animal. The authors go on to write:12
“Modern broiler chickens are morphologically, genetically and isotopically distinct from domestic chickens prior to the mid-20th century. The global range of modern broilers and biomass dominance over all other bird species is a product of human intervention.
As such, broiler chickens vividly symbolize the transformation of the biosphere to fit evolving human consumption patterns, and show clear potential to be a biostratigraphic marker species of the Anthropocene.”
Pathogens and Chemical Contaminants in CAFO Chickens
Raw chicken meat is particularly dangerous. Over the years, testing has shown chicken is particularly prone to contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Testing in 200713 found 80 percent of whole chicken broilers had Salmonella and/or Campylobacter, two of the leading causes of foodborne illness.
In 2010, retesting demonstrated modest improvements but just three years later Consumer Reports 14 found 97 percent of the chicken breast tested had harmful bacteria, and half had at least one type of bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics.
In 2018 a salmonella outbreak in 29 states resulted from chicken contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.15 A small sampling of 24 chickens from four national retailers was tested, finding 88 percent were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.16
Bacterial Contamination Is Not the Only Challenge to Eating Chicken
In 2017 a story broke that Sanderson Farms’ so-called “100% natural chicken” was contaminated with ketamine. This is a drug used by veterinarians, psychiatrists and recreational drug users, known for delivering hallucinogenic effects.
While many chicken producers are actively taking steps to reduce antibiotic use, Sanderson Farms has not, until very recently. In the final months of 2018, the company stated it would discontinue the use of antibiotics Gentamicin and virginiamycin by March 1, 2019.17 Until this announcement they were the only large U.S. chicken producer not committed to curbing the use of medicinally important antibiotics.
However, despite their announcement they did not state whether or not they would allow an independent third-party to verify practices.18 They report they do not use any other medicinally important antibiotics beyond these two, but again do not allow third-party verification.
Sanderson Farms Continues to Push Back on Safer Policies
In 2017, Center for Food Safety and Friends of Earth took Sanderson to court alleging the company’s advertisements were false and misleading. After two previous attempts were dismissed, the court has now agreed to hear the case. Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, states:19
“After years of misleading the public and denying the public health risks associated with overuse of antibiotics in animal production, we welcome the judges’ decision to allow our lawsuit against Sanderson Farms to continue.”
At the time the original lawsuit was filed, Sanderson unequivocally denied administration of antibiotics, other chemicals or pesticides listed in the complaint, except for penicillin prescribed to treat sick flocks.20 However, this recent announcement that they would eliminate the use of two medicinally important antibiotics is contradictory to their statement in response to the original lawsuit.
Chickens Are Bigger but Less Nutritious
Broiler chickens are larger, producing more meat, but the meat is less nutritious. Levels of healthy fats in chicken, namely beneficial animal-based omega-3s including DHA, have also changed considerably.
The London Metropolitan University study, written by Michael Crawford Ph.D., of London Metropolitan University,21 found eating 100 grams (about one-quarter pound) of chicken in 1980 would give you 170 milligrams (mg) of DHA, but the same amount of chicken in 2004 would provide just 25 mg.
Omega-6 fats, on the other hand — the kind most Americans get way too much of, courtesy of highly processed vegetable oils — increased, rising from 2,400 mg in 1980 to 6,290 mg in 2004.
Your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is important to your general health and brain development. The ideal ratio is 1-to-1, but the typical Western diet may be between 1-to-20 and 1-to-50. CAFO chicken, and for that matter CAFO anything, certainly doesn’t help anyone achieve their goal. For more information about the nutritional content in chicken see my previous article, “Big Chickens, Little Nutrition.”
Choosing Safer Chicken and Eggs Reduces Your Risk
Choosing food from small regenerative farms — not factory farms — is an important health consideration. Seek out antibiotic-free alternatives raised by organic and regenerative farmers. Unfortunately, loopholes allow CAFO raised chicken and eggs to be masqueraded as “free-range” and “organic.”
Some of these issues are addressed in the Cornucopia Institute egg report22 and score card,23 which ranks producers according to 28 organic criteria. Ultimately, the best choice is a trusted local farmer where you can get your meat and eggs directly.
Alternatively, consider raising your own backyard chickens, a practice growing in popularity in many U.S. cities. Requirements vary depending upon your geographical area, with zoning restrictions limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections.
Check with your city’s regulations before taking the plunge. You might be surprised to find your city already allows raising chickens. If you don’t want to raise your own but still want farm fresh eggs, look for high quality organic, pastured eggs raised locally. In urban areas, visit the local health food store to find high-quality local eggs sources.
Farmers markets and food co-ops are another way to meet people who produce your food. When you have face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you’re buying. Better yet, visit the farm and ask for a tour. If they have nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.