Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Choosing Poultry - Free Range, Natural, or Industrial? That is the Question.

About thirty years ago, poultry was more expensive than even the finest cuts of lamb or beef. Seem impossible? Check it out.

Today, chicken and turkey are only so very, very affordable because of the technological advances in raising them, but not everyone has welcomed these advances or seen them as something good.

Small, private poultry farms, which used to be all there were, now have little to no significance in the marketplace. Instead, professional poultry farms have become the norm, with industrialized and intensive rearing strategies and high-tech breeding that allows them to produce billions of birds each year and lower the price for consumers. However, more often than not, this lowering of cost has been obtained at the price of nutrition and flavor. There are also grave concerns about housing birds of all kinds in crowded pens and cages, as is done on the typical poultry production farm.

Of course, animal rights activists have raised moral and ethical questions, as well they should, but aside from this, there are health and culinary considerations as well.

In so many ways, animals and humans are alike - when under fear and duress, both emit stress hormones into their bloodstream, hormones that can create unhealthy imbalances. In the case of poultry, these stress hormones can affect the meat's tenderness, its flavor, and its nutritional value. In addition, industrialized poultry farms often give their birds antibiotics and other drugs to compensate for the effects of stress, drugs that might not be entirely safe for human consumption.

Here at Culinary Corner Cafe, we always advocate the humane treatment of every living thing, but a discussion of the ethical and moral implications of industrialized poultry farms is beyond the scope of this blog, so here, we'll focus only on the culinary aspects.

If you view poultry farms as we do, you might be tempted to turn to free-range poultry, instead, but this, too, can present complications for the serious cook. Be aware that "free-range" and "organic" have different meanings. The terms aren't interchangeable. When one thinks of "free-range," too often one thinks of breezy pastures and idyllic farmyards, but this isn't always the case.

All fresh meat is considered "natural," according to the US Department of Agriculture. No artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or chemicals may be added to a product that's labeled "natural." Any "natural" product must also undergo only minimal processing, e.g., cutting or grinding. However, the wording regarding all of this is quite vague.

In order for any poultry shelter to call itself "free-range," the birds must have some access to the outdoors. And that, basically, is the only requirement. There are no stipulations regarding the bird's quality of life, e.g., its treatment, feeding, cages, hours of sunlight, etc., or even whether of not the bird ever actually went outdoors. Just that it had some access.

Making the labeling more restrictive and stringent would have little to no effect as no one checks to see that the requirements are enforced. The US Department of Agriculture relies on the statements of the farmers and accepts them at face value.

The American Humane Association (AHA) has responded to this problem by creating its own label - "free-farmed." In order to make use of this lable, the poultry producer, processor, and hauler must have their claims verified by an independent third party.

The AHA demands that "free-farmed" birds be given clean cages, clean and sufficient food and water, protection from inclement weather, space, and many other considerations that protect both the health and safety of the bird. The AHA also requires that those raising the birds be thoroughly trained in the art of animal husbandry.

You simply can't inspect every poultry farm yourself. So do the next best thing. Ask a lot of questions at the market where you purchase your poultry. Find out exactly what your supplier means by "organic" and "free-range." Finally, make sure the buyer at your market is as concerned with health (both the bird's and yours) and high quality as you are.

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