I was giving an eco-parenting talk last week when a pregnant-with-her-second-child mom asked me if it were true that all chicken is bathed in chlorine as part of its slaughterhouse processing. I was grossed out, appalled, and stumped. I wasnt, however, surprised. Conventional meat is about as grim and questionable as it gets. The slaughterhouses must have some serious gunk in need of disinfecting, especially as it is done in (potentially cross contaminating) bulk. I havent personally used chlorine bleach in years and years and clearly would not want the food I feed my family to be dunked in it.
When I got home, I immediately started researching her query. I personally get chicken from three places: my local farmers market, a pastured meat and poultry CSA I belong to, and a butcher shop near my parents place in upstate New York called Fleisher's. I have never smelled anything even remotely chlorine-y about any of these birds. But apparently a lot of people have smelled the chemical on theirs.
My first mode of action was to email my CSA contact to find out what they do to clean poultry, and to see if they could help get me up to date on what USDA organic regulations are when it comes to chlorine (I highly doubted they permit such a caustic chemical). Then I started reading everything I could about chlorinated chickens. I had given the mom who asked my email address and she forwarded me some links. One article she sent from Britains Daily Mail lamenting a possible lift of a ban against US chicken pointed out that it would have to be labeled as 'treated with antimicrobial substances' or 'decontaminated by chemicals'. Would that we had such labels here!
My basic understanding is that most big poultry producers in the United States do put their chicken in chlorine baths to decontaminate it. The U.S. Department of Agricultures Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced earlier this year new policies and practices related to something called a Salmonella verification sampling program. Its part of an overall initiative to raise performance standards among poultry and beef processing plants in testing and eliminating Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and Listeria. To put this in a little context: chlorine baths are currently banned in the EU for meat and organic food in general, though apparently not for salad mixes. (Though of course it also sounds like rules and regulations change frequently. Its hard to keep up on what is and isnt permitted to be bathed in chlorine and, also, who, exactly is making sure what isnt permitted isnt happening.) In America, these baths are permitted for salad mixes, meat, and more.
Stateside, many organic and/or pastured poultry producers use ozone instead of chlorine. Apparently the USDA organic rules for chlorine levels in water must not exceed the maxim residual disinfectant limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. By all accounts I read the levels used for chlorine baths are quite a bit higher than for regular old drinking water. In other words: chlorine baths like the ones conventional processing plants are using arent permitted for organic chicken. (Any meat wonks out there reading this please let me know by posting in comments if Im getting this wrong!) Besides, I dont personally know many organic farmers who would willingly use chlorine when there are other viable, safer disinfecting options like ozone.
That said I know not everyone sources (or can source) their chicken as intimately as I do, so I emailed the people at Murrays Chicken to figure out what they do. Murrays is the most natural, widely available brand where I live. I like the fact that theyve recently phased out styrofoam trays in favor of more eco-friendly packaging. And, back in 2001, when I was writing about food for Details magazine, I decided it would be a good idea to see turkeys be slaughtered for a Thanksgiving column. I wound up going to see one of Murrays Turkey farms. It was an eye opening experience and I was -- and am -- happy to report the conditions seemed quite ok, considering. I had expected the day would turn me into a vegetarian but mere hours after stroking a free range baby turkey in my arms, I ate some breast right there on the clean, gorgeous farm.
It turns out Murrays uses electrolyzed eco water to clean their birds. A press release they sent me about the new-ish water says theyre the first poultry processor to use this technology in its food sanitation process on an industrial scale. More from the press release:
Successful trials, including several at the University of Georgia, have shown that electrolyzed water is highly effective at killing food-borne bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, without affecting the quality of the food. '...We grow our chickens without administering any antibiotics, and our chickens are fed a 100% vegetarian feed free of any animal fats or animal by-products. EAUs electrolyzed water is created using natural ingredients and has been proven non-toxic in addition to being effective, said Steve Gold, Vice President of Marketing for Murrays Chicken. Electrolyzed water, marketed as Empowered Water(TM) by EAU, is created by combining salt and water with an electrical charge. The process separates the positive and negative ions of water, creating two forms of water, one very acidic and one very alkaline. The alkaline EO water is used to clean the chicken, followed by a rinse of the electrolyzed acidic water to kill any remaining food-borne pathogens.
Yet another reason to know your farmers and/or butchers whenever possible. Or to spend the extra time to seek out trustworthy companies. Chlorine should not be whats for dinner.
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