Not just “chicken feed”

This holiday season, we took a little trip to New Hampshire to purchase raw milk. It’s available there, but forbidden by nanny governments in most other states. On our travels, we also found fresh, antibiotic-free poultry from Bell & Evans Farms. 

While we enjoyed preparing and sharing our holiday fare, we learned more about what Bell & Evans does to provide healthy foods to their customers. For one, instead of antibiotics, the company uses a common kitchen herb to keep their chickens free of disease. I’ll tell you more about that innovative, yet old-fashioned approach tomorrow. But today, I want to share with you what we learned on our travels about raising safe and healthy poultry.

Bell & Evans has raised high quality poultry since the late 1800s. Located about 30 miles east of Harrisburg, Pa., the company is best known for producing poultry products free of antibiotics.

To provide safe, antibiotic-free poultry, Bell & Evans maintains high standards of sanitation in coops where flocks are sheltered. Their chickens also receive good ventilation and light when inside the coop.

Plus, as they grow, the chickens freely roam about outside in the fresh air. And instead of cheap soy meal filled with solvents, their chickens eat high-quality corn and soybeans.

Plus…

After a flock of poultry leaves a coop for slaughter, Bell & Evans completely hoses down their facility. They clean the water lines and disinfect everything. Then, the coop sits empty for two to three weeks to allow bacteria to die off naturally. This also eliminates rodents. Rodents of course may carry dangerous food-borne bacteria like salmonella and campylobacter.

All this adds to the expense of producing healthy poultry. Mass-produced, assembly line approaches certainly cost much less. However, these “factory” farms tend to produce contaminated foods and burden the environment. And let’s not forget their unethical use of antibiotics.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals for food production. Farmers use most of those antibiotics to enhance growth in their animals.

The antibiotics make the animals grow faster and fatter. Antibiotics are also used to prevent infections from spreading through crowded, unhealthy conditions. This, unfortunately, is how most animals are raised today.

Sadly, the misuse of antibiotics has led to a far greater problem than just fat pigs and lazy chickens. It’s directly related to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Or “superbugs.” Superbugs that can’t be treated with antibiotics.

There were several meat recalls related to dangerous bacterial strains just last year. One recall included more than 60 million pounds of beef. Another included 36 million pounds of poultry. Both were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella.

Last month, an antibiotic-resistant bacterium (Yersinia enterocolitica) that’s part of the same genus that causes the Black Plague turned up in more than two-thirds of nearly 200 samples of pork. Pork that was sold at stores around the country.

As I have mentioned before in my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, the CDC is good at controlling infectious disease. In fact, it may be the one thing it’s good at doing.

Last November, the CDC finally issued a statement on antibiotics that calls for “limiting the use of medically important human antibiotics in food animals” and “supporting the use of such antibiotics in animals only for those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health.”

We can only hope the CDC’s words will begin to have an impact on the market.

In the meantime, organic, antibiotic-free sales remain only a small part of the overall meat market. (To be clear…meat, poultry, and fish labeled as “organic” by law must be raised without antibiotics. So if your chicken package says it’s organic, it cannot and does not use antibiotics.) In fact, organic meat sales totaled just over half a billion dollars last year. That’s compared to total beef sales of nearly $80 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Fortunately, shoppers are getting smarter. And are paying much more attention to the content of their food with each passing year. And as a consumer in the free market, you vote with your feet and pocketbook.

So, it’s not surprising when groceries like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, as well as some restaurant chains, report they can’t get enough antibiotic-free meat to keep up with demand.

Consumer Reports conducted a survey last year. Nearly two-thirds of consumers reported they would be willing to pay at least a nickel per pound more for meat raised without antibiotics. Added up over the multi-billion dollar meat business, that’s not just “chicken feed.”

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