As usual, the week brought with it a couple of, shall we say, "interesting" claims about poultry circulating in mainstream and social media outlets. This is no surprise, of course. It seems like those of us in agriculture could find some piece of misinformation nearly every day to refute.
On Friday evening, I was enjoying some downtime at home after a very busy week the office. While my husband was watching something on the History Channel, I was glancing through the latest issue of Redbook magazine, a popular women's magazine. All was going along just fine - typical fashion, recipes and exercise tips - until a headline caught my eye: "Food Labels, Demystified." Right below it was a paragraph about cage-free and free-range eggs, along with a drawing a chicken.
While I'm all for clarifying what cage-free and free-range actually mean, it was the later part of the paragraph that practically made steam come out of my ears: " ... neither guarantees that the birds actually went outside or were fed a diet free of pesticides and antibiotics."
Pesticides fed to chickens? Think about that for a moment. What does that even mean?
If I had to guess, I'd say the writer is referencing - albeit in a completely misleading way - the use of pesticides by farmers who raise corn and soybeans, which are the mainstays of a laying hen's diet. However, this simplistic statement makes the dangerous assumption that consumers should be worried about this.
They should not. Decades of scientific research of conventionally-raised corn and soybeans - including GMO varieties - backs me up on this. Plus, I can tell from my own personal experience that tons of research on poultry diets - and finding the optimal nutrition for birds - is happening every, single day. The farmers I work with spend a lot of time learning about bird nutrition and fine-tuning feed rations for their flocks because that, in turn, leads to a healthy, safe product for consumers.
And as a farmer friend of mine ( who has both conventional and organic production on her farm) so eloquently stated to me about this Redbook blurb when I posted it on Facebook: Labeling regarding health claims is regulated by the federal governments for both organic or conventional foods so everyone is playing by the same rules.
Hands down no question, I see every day that the health of the birds and making sure consumers are getting a safe product are the top priorities for farmers.
The problem is, of course, that most readers of Redbook have no knowledge of farming and only see the scary word "PESTICIDE" glaring out at them. It all comes down to a poorly written blurb that doesn't demystify a label, but rather further muddies the water and creates a sense of mistrust in farmers.
Also this past week, a friend of mine shared a link to a Change.org petition to "Stop Boiling Animals Alive!" Basically, the person who posted the petition wrote, "The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is enforced by the USDA, but they decided it's acceptable to exclude chickens and turkeys—as if they're inanimate objects!"
Over 239,000 people have signed the petition - again, scary-sounding title so perfectly incites fear and mistrust - to date, but I think it's a safe assumption that most don't know the true details behind this. While it is true that Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply to poultry, it is absolutely NOT true that poultry processing goes unregulated by USDA. That's just a completely erroneous claim and a dangerous statement to make.
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has a set of guidelines for humane poultry slaughter under the "Poultry Products Inspection Act" (PPIA). I won't get into all the lengthy details, but the PPIA includes specific directives so that birds are handled humanely throughout the steps of processing. Is every processing plant perfect? Of course not - but I've never toured a poultry processing plant that didn't aim for 100% compliance with the guidelines. It would be foolish on many levels not to comply and USDA inspectors are in place at all times at the plants to make sure all is handled according to the PPIA. If not, companies may receive a non-compliance report relating to animal welfare and USDA will take action.
You can read more about poultry inspections and also the new rules for the modernization of the poultry inspection system at this website from the National Chicken Council.
I'm not going to lie - sometimes being an agriculture advocate can be exhausting. One small blurb in a mainstream magazine like Redbook can feel very much like a David vs. Goliath situation.
But it always helps to have supportive friends and colleagues, helping out, sharing information, and sometimes simply giving a word of encouragement. I - like so many of us - know that our communications efforts are worth it so I encourage you to keep at it and advocate for agriculture in ways that make sense for you.