Supermarket Angst Part III: How to Buy Better Poultry
As I wrote in previous installments of my Supermarket Angst series, I've been using extra money in our grocery budget to improve the quality of the food I buy my family. Buying organic for produce with the highest danger of pesticide contamination was an easy choice, but I've found it difficult to know what's worth the extra money when buying animal products -- eggs and dairy products, for instance.
Today I'm tackling one of the most baffling buying categories, for me -- poultry. Unlike beef, where I know I want hormone- and antibiotic-free, I'm unclear on whether chickens and turkeys are given hormones and antibiotics to begin with. I've seen labels like "natural" and even "Amish" and "Kosher" on chicken -- do those mean it's healthier? And what about turkey? I don't think I've ever seen special labels on that, although I have heard about people spending big box on organic turkeys at Thanksgiving.
First of all, let's look at the most expensive category: organic poultry. Birds sold as organic must eat organic feed, which should in theory reduce the chance of pesticides building up in the meat that we eat. But according to a 2004 Business Week story, pesticides in meat is a much smaller health concern than pesticides on produce:
"While 47% of the produce sampled by the USDA in 2002 had detectable pesticide residues, only 16% of grains and 15% of meat tested did. Most of the residues found in meat (almost always in the fat) were from long-banned chemicals like DDT, which remain in the environment and is not a problem organic farming methods can solve."
That passage was enough to convince me not to worry about pesticides in my poultry. But is getting hormone-free birds another reason to buy organic? According to the United States Department of Agriculture's food labeling FAQ, no.
"Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says 'Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.'"
However, the USDA does allow poultry producers to use the phrase “antibiotic-free.” As with beef and milk, antibiotic overuse in raising fowl is more of a public health concern than a worry for the consumer of the resulting food. The routine use of antibiotics when raising livestock, it is feared, can contribute to the creation of superbugs resistant to current antibiotic drugs.
After reading the USDA's sheet, I would feel comfortable skipping “organic” birds in favor of those labeled “antibiotic free.” Of course, at many stores you'd be lucky to find one or the other, so you might end up buying organic just to be sure you're not feeding the antibiotic problem.
What about “natural” or “all-natural” chickens? Can I count on those to be healthier than other birds? According to the USDA, all “natural” means is that it doesn't have added color or other artificial ingredients. Yegads, the idea of farmer's injecting their dead birds with color isn't even a problem I'd contemplated. But no, I'd say a bird labeled "natural" isn't worth much or any extra money.
Then of course, just like with eggs, there is the issue of how one's chicken dinner was treated while it was alive. This is mostly a matter of deciding between caged versus cage-free versus free-range birds, but it is possible to go beyond those labels, which I'll address in a minute. I wasn't even sure if the crowded cage conditions I'd heard about for laying hens also went on in the meat chicken industry. But this paper, found on PETA's Web site, makes the life of a broiler chicken sound even more miserable than that of a laying hen. The paper also touches on the miserable working conditions in the poultry industry, which are documented in plenty of places.
The short answer is yes, meat chickens are typically raised crowded into cages, and so buying something labeled “cage-free” or “free-range” would be a plus. But as with eggs, the meaning of these terms is pretty limited and by no means ensure that the bird you're eating had a good or even bearable life.
In fact, the unsettling reading from the link above has the effect – as I'm sure many things found on the PETA Web site do – of making one wonder if it's possible to eat meat at all without being complicit in the mistreatment of both animals and workers. After all, even a chicken labeled “free-range” may well suffer a slow painful trip through the slaughterhouse. I've never seen a “cruelty-free” label on a frozen chicken.
Of course, you might say that eating meat CAN'T be cruelty free because you have to kill the animal in order to eat it. But personally, I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian, and I'm not interested in becoming one. I'd just prefer if the animals I eat suffer as little as possible in the process of being turned into my dinner.
Ideally, I'd like to buy chickens who lived in a place like Polyface Farms, which I read about in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Polyface moves its chickens from one patch of pasture to another throughout the summer, using portable pens to ensure they always have access to their favorite greens (clover, apparently) and lots of juicy bugs, not to mention space to move and fresh air. But finding a supplier whose environment meets those standards takes more research than reading labels in Super Target (where I typically buy my antibiotic-free chicken on sale), and yes, it will cost me more too.
This site lists some farmers in all states that pasture their poultry like Polyface does. Apparently I could order whole chickens that have had pretty good lives, and are antibiotic-free, from one of these places for around $2.75 a pound. That's not bad when you compare it to the price of beef, of course, although a whole chicken contains a bunch of bones, skin and fat that we won't be eating. I could even order a meat share from a Community Supported Agriculture farm that would take care of all my egg, meat and poultry worries at the cost of around $5 a pound – that's my guess of the average cost of what they provide, which would probably be less for the chicken and more for the beef.
Considering that I often find beef and poultry at Super Target that meets SOME environmental, cruelty and health standards for $2-3 a pound, am I willing to sign up for a CSA where I'd pay around twice as much?
I'm seriously considering it. On top of ending my supermarket angst in one fell swoop, the idea of having my meat and egg shopping done for me every other week is a time-saving bonus.
The one thing I haven't had the chance to address here is turkey. Are turkeys caged and given antibiotics? Is there such a thing as a free-range or organic turkey?
I found one good article defining terms that label turkeys -- it basically says that yes, all the same terms that apply to chickens mean the same thing when applied to turkeys. The same limitations apply, too – a package of ground turkey labeled “free range” may have come from a bird allowed very limited access to an outdoor porch or pen while still enduring very crowded or otherwise unfavorable conditions.
So, as you might guess, the more I read about animal treatment on conventional farms, the more motivated I am to buy more-expensive products in dairy, eggs AND meats. Can my family maintain our $80-a-week grocery budget while getting all particular on animal products like this?
I'm not sure, but I think it may be possible. One tactic will involve limiting the meat in our diets. We currently eat meat about five times a week. If I order a $20-per-week meat CSA share, it will provide us with enough meat to eat about three times a week, judging from the list here. Add a vegetable CSA share for around $28 a week, and, at least through the Midwest growing season, I'd have the basics taken care of with around $30 to spend at the grocery store each week on milk, fruits and grains/packaged foods.