Should you eat chicken?

Alex Jones, Farmstand Product Manager

The short answer: yes, if you know where it came from.

New York Times food guru Mark Bittman fired off an op-ed this Sunday about the recent salmonella outbreak, and its title - "Should You Eat Chicken?" - shows its author's level of alarm. The entire article is worth a read but here's a quick summary: Chicken processed by Foster Farms in California was linked to a multi-state salmonella outbreak  first noted by the Center of Disease Control on October 8th; since then, 338 infections have been reported in 20 different states. No official recall has been issued and Foster Farms is still processing and selling chickens. (Since Sunday, Bittman has posted some updates on the situation on his NYT blog.)

Bittman links the USDA and FDA's lack of action to pro-industry bias. He calls for the cessation of the use of prophylactic antibiotics in animal production - which promotes the creation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs - and a change in regulation that would allow agencies to pull foods potentially contaminated with salmonella from the market. Bittman ends his piece with another question: "... should you eat chicken? That's your call."

While I often agree with Mark Bittman, he ignores a pretty obvious solution: Eat chicken that's been raised naturally, without hormones or antibiotics, by a small-scale, sustainable farm. Even better, eat chicken that's processed and inspected on-farm or in a small inspected processing facility. (It goes without saying that any chicken should be stored and prepared according to proper food safety guidelines.)

That's not a practical solution for the McNugget-makers of the world, but it can be for those of us who purchase chicken to cook at home. The Fair Food Farmstand carries only sustainably and humanely raised meats. We source pastured, GMO-free chicken from two very small Lancaster County farms (Meadow Run and Shady Acres). Our naturally raised - that means hormone- and antibiotic free - chicken, duck, and truly amazing pot pies come from Griggstown Farm in Princeton, NJ, which boasts their own small, USDA-inspected processor on-site. I caught up with Chef Matthew Sytsema, part-owner of Griggstown, about this salmonella outbreak and how his operation is different from industrial agriculture. 

“We have an increase in business every time there’s a mad cow outbreak, or a salmonella outbreak, even with lettuce or something like that,” Sytsema said. “Our business always goes up.  People are afraid of buying that product at a supermarket, and they want that face time with us and other small shops like [Fair Food], because if there’s a problem, they can go back and […] remedy that problem and it’s pretty instantaneous.”

Besides the accountability that small farms and retailers who sell their products can offer, the small scale and sustainable focus make a huge difference in the health and happiness of the birds while they’re being raised and in the safety of the final product. And Griggstown’s on-site processing facility makes it simple to prevent salmonella contamination in the time between birds are selected and when they arrive at the processor.

“[Chickens from industrial-scale farms] could be trucked a hundred miles to the nearest slaughter plant, where[as] our birds are caught in the morning from our barn and within 20 minutes, they’re in our processing plant,” Sytsema said. “So they’re not sitting that long, you don’t have to worry about the chances of the birds pooping on each other when they’re in the crates and all this other stuff [as you do] when they’re stacked 12 [crates] high on these tractor-trailers.”

Fewer chickens to process means more attention from the inspector, too. “Since we’re such a small operator, we’re considered a very small plant in our classification under the USDA. Our inspector actually has a chance to inspect every bird, while on some of these [larger] processing lines, they’re running a bird by every second,” Systema said. Contamination can easily spread in crowded conditions (part of the reason so many factory-farmed birds are dosed with antibiotics for the duration of their lives), and contamination inside the birds can spread to the outside during processing.  Inspectors at smaller facilities are more able to give their attention to the product: “Our line doesn’t move that fast, so you can get a full look at the bird.”

And in Griggstown’s kitchen facility, where chefs prepare and pack those delicious pot pies, hand pies, and marinated poussin, the farm runs regular tests and cooperates with government regulations to ensure a safe product. “We do a lot of testing for salmonella, and we’ve always come [in] way underneath thresholds, which is something that we pride ourselves on,” Sytsema said.

While I haven’t seen inside Griggstown’s processing plant, I have toured their fields, barns, and kitchen, and I feel confident when I stock products from them – and from our other sustainable animal farmers – that I’m providing Philadelphians with an opportunity to buy chicken whose quality and safety they can trust. We at Fair Food want sustainable, safe farm products to become the norm, not the niche, and that includes what’s on supermarket shelves. And one way to push our food system in that direction is to spend your food dollars with sustainable farms and the small retailers and cooperatives that stock their products.

So, should you eat chicken? Again, that’s your call.