Effects of Poultry Management Systems on Consumer Health

Fig 2. Comparison of yolks in eggs produced by grass-fed chickens (left) and grain fed chickens (right) (HealthBanquet.com LLC,  2009) Retrieved from http://www.healthbanquet.com/free-range-eggs.html)

Tyler France, Kylie LaRocque, Kelsi Watkins

Have you ever wondered where the meat you buy at the grocery store comes from?  Or if the animals are raised on a nice green pasture and treated humanely?  We’d all like to think that they were, but the harsh reality is that the majority of our meat is produced by industrialized farming facilities, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  CAFOs are farms designed to produce the highest yield of product for the lowest price, and in the shortest amount of time. Industrial farms don’t raise their meat like local farms do; they produce it as fast as possible to support a high profit margin. For example, most broiler chickens, which are chickens breeds raised for meat, reach market weight around 20 weeks of age or in five months; thus giving these chickens the shortest lives amongst industrialized farmed animals (Sams, 2001). This can be compared to poultry production in the late 1940s, when chickens would take almost triple the time to reach the same market weight as today (Sams, 2001).

CAFOs use growth promoters, cramped living areas, and abuse the use of antibiotics in the animals’ feed to help the animals reach market weight as quickly as possible(Tarantino, 2011).  All of these practices are seemingly done for the producer’s profit, with apparent disregard for the chickens’ welfare until it reaches the point where profits are affected (HSUS, 2013). The main goal of most industrial farms is to make money, even when producing the fastest product possible has been proven to cause health issues in consumers (HSUS, 2013).

Fig 1.0 Causes of foodborne illness outbreaks from

2003–2008 (CDC, 2013).

As seen in figure 1.0, the Center for Disease Control has concluded that poultry meat contributes more than any other food product to foodborne illnesses (2013).  The CDC also stated that outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, and other diseases are becoming more frequent in the United States and worldwide (2013).  The constant use of unnecessary antibiotics in industrial animal feed leads to resistant strains of these potentially deadly diseases (HSUS, 2013). Today, animals in these concentrated feeding operations are raised on a drug filled diet which is designed to make them grow faster and prevent losses due to disease (Sams, 2001).  However, the diseases producers try to prevent with antibiotics, which often live at subclinical levels in the animals’ gut, can easily contaminate the meat during slaughter and end up being passed on to consumers (Sams, 2001).  Consumers can greatly reduce their exposure to these diseases by buying poultry meat and eggs from small, local farms that practice free range management systems (Gorski, 1999).  A small, local, free range farm is a farm that treats their animals humanely; allowing their chickens to participate in their natural behaviors, in a stress-free environment, and ensures that their chicken flock “was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle” (USDA, 2012). The industrial production of chicken meat and eggs leads to health problems in consumers, therefore consumers should consider purchasing chicken products from local farms with free-range flocks.

Your Health is at Risk

In the United States, industrial farming has been able to feed our current and growing population with fresh meats and vegetables at affordable prices for consumers.  While trying to produce the greatest amount of meat in the shortest amount of time, industrial poultry producers have placed their consumer’s future health at risk.  For example, roxarsone is an arsenical drug used in the poultry and swine industries to increase animal weight gain and improve feed efficiency (FDA, 2013).  Roxarsone, just like arsenic, is a lethal poison when administered in raw doses (FDA, 2013).  In 2006 alone, the United States produced “approximately one million kilograms of roxarsone” (FDA, 2013) which was used in animal feed and about “70 percent of the 9 billion fryer chickens grown annually nationwide eat feed containing the additive” (Tarantino, 2011).  But this is not the only arsenical drug that poultry and swine consume, it is actually one of five drugs approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2013).

Laboratory studies on the effects of roxarsone show that, “the antibiotic arsenic compound roxarsone, which promotes the growth of blood vessels in chickens to produce pinker meat, does the same in human cell[s].  This is a critical first step in many human diseases, including cancer” (Tarantino, 2011).  Roxarsone promotes the increased growth of blood vessels by producing higher amounts of connective tissue for a faster weight gain in production animals, but it can also have the same effect on our bodies and lead to an increased risk for cancer (Tarantino, 2011).  Since cancer is caused by non-regulated proliferating cells, that is, cells that keep multiplying without stopping, roxarsone most likely increases the rate at which muscle cells multiply (Tarantino, 2011).

Because there is evidence supporting these arsenic feed additives causing human health issues, why are industries in the United States still allowed to feed their animals these harmful drugs, unlike in Europe where they have already been banned (FDA, 2013)?  Small steps are being taken towards the disuse of these harmful drugs, at least in animal genetics research:

In September 2013, the FDA announced that Zoetis [a large global animal health and vaccine company] and Fleming Laboratories [a genetics research company] would voluntarily withdraw current roxarsone, arsanilic acid, and carbarsone approvals, leaving only nitarsone approval in place.  (FDA, 2013)

Even though the animals at Zoetis and Fleming Laboratories are not being used for human consumption, it is the disuse from large companies like these that are needed for change to occur in the United States and increase consumer health.  However, the USA is still lagging behind the European Union with the ban of roxarsone and other important animal welfare issues (FDA, 2013).

Unfortunately, the use of roxarsone and an increased risk of cancer are not the only health risks that come with eating today’s industrialized poultry; as stated above, antibiotic resistance to certain diseases are on a steady rise (CDC, 2013, Salmonella).  Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, and many other foodborne illnesses can be derived from poultry products; either by consuming meat that was not fully cooked or by consuming meat contaminated with feces during slaughter (Sams, 2001). Although it may be difficult for the average consumer to imagine, fecal contamination is common in the meat processing process. In order to fully understand how this contamination happens, consumers must also understand how concentrated animal feeding operations work.

In the book, Poultry Meat Processing edited by Alan Sams, who is currently the Dean at the Agricultural and Life Sciences Texas A&M University with a PhD in food science and human nutrition, Dr. Sams discusses how today’s chickens are raised and includes descriptive detail about the production and processing of chickens from birth until they end up on store shelves. Sams starts by explaining the chickens’ living situation: “Birds are generally reared on litter […] in enclosed houses, with approximately 20,000 broilers per house” (Sams, 2001, p.6).  With these tight quarters, chickens are often cramped and deprived of space needed to even stretch their wings (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).  Sams further goes on to explain how the size and density of the flock affects how diseases are spread: “Because of the high animal density in modern broiler production, Salmonella is likely to amplify in an infected flock and persist through slaughter and processing” (2001, p.123).  Because industrial farms have large flocks, it directly affects how easily diseases can be spread and even last through animal processing for consumer consumption (Sams, 2001, p.123).

Processing refers to the steps taken to prepare the chicken for consumption, including de-feathering, de-heading, and with the removal of unwanted internal organs.  Alan Sams (2001) states that that the main source of foodborne illnesses comes from fecal contamination on the bird carcasses:

It has long been known that the ceca and large intestine are the primary sites of Salmonella colonization. Thus, since the early 1970s intestinal contents have traditionally been regarded as the major focal point for controlling Salmonella contamination in processing plants. (p.124)

Therefore, it is common practice on industrial farms to avoid fecal contamination is by depriving the birds of food and water before processing in the hope that they will completely empty their bowels before slaughter (Sams, 2001).

Since fecal contamination is harmful for the industry, causing a decrease in their profit by having to pay workers extra to hand-wash any contaminated carcasses, processing plants will provide incentives to farmers for chickens that require no extra processing (Sams, 2001, p.10).   But due to the fast-paced working environment and processing inspections that are commonplace in the processing industry, 50% of poultry on supermarkets shelves are contaminated with fecal remains (Sams, 2001, p.10).  As Sams states, “Ideally, the length of feed withdrawal before processing should be the shortest amount of time required for the birds’ digestive tracts to become empty”, but usually producers press their luck by increasing the withdrawal time so that they can receive a higher profit for uncontaminated birds (2001, p.7).  This method of withholding is profitable for the producers, because they receive a higher pay for birds that require little reprocessing due to empty bowels, but causes a great deal of stress on the birds which in turn can decrease their meat quality (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).

CAFOs place their chickens in high stress living conditions which can cause consumers to receive a lower quality product and also increases health issues for the consumer (HSUS, 2013).  From the day they are born, CAFO produced chickens are debeaked, forced to live in cramped areas, and deprived of their natural behaviors (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).  Debeaking is a procedure done to industrially farmed birds in order to prevent cannibalism amongst the flock when they are forced to live in tight quarters; however, this procedure deprives the chickens of their natural instinct to investigate by pecking (Cunningham, 1992).  By removing over a quarter of their bottom beaks and almost half of their top beak with a soldering machine, debeaking causes the birds pain and increases stress levels (Cunningham, 1992).  Seen as an inhuman act in Europe, soldering of the chickens’ densely nerve-filled beaks causes them to lose interest in food for weeks and deprives them from their naturally investigative pecking behavior, while increasing their stress levels (Cunningham, 1992).

Veterinarian and Dean Frederick A. Murphy (2013) at University of California School of Veterinary Medicine, has studied the effects of stress that industrial farming places on chickens and concluded:

Chickens placed in overcrowded enclosures develop, over time, ‘increased adrenal weight,’ a swelling growth of the glands that produce stress hormones like adrenaline, while, at the same time, experiencing ‘regression of lymphatic organs,’ a shriveling of the organs of the immune system. (HSUS, 2013, Stressors)

These stressors that industrial farms force their chickens to withstand all lead to their chickens developing suppressed immune systems (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).

Layers, which are chicken breeds used for egg production, typically face even more stress than typical broilers in that they are deprived of many natural behaviors including wing flapping, scratching, stretching, freely walking, jumping, running, and mostly any form of exercise (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).  All of these stressors leading to a suppressed immune system, a higher risk of diseases in the birds, and an overall lower quality product for the consumers.  This leads to an increased chance that industrially farmed poultry will contain food borne illnesses due to their suppressed immune systems and is also the primary reason CAFOs continue using antibiotics in their grains (HSUS, 2013, Stressors).

Antibiotic resistance occurs when it takes more antibiotics to kill off a specific amount of pathogen, or disease, than it previously did with a smaller dose of medicine (CDC, 2013, Antibiotics/Antimicrobial Resistance).  By feeding industrialized farmed animals grains with high amounts of antibiotics in them, producers try to reduce the risk of their animals getting sick, but inadvertently increase antibiotic resistant bacteria in the flock and consumer exposure to antibiotic resistant strains of deadly pathogens (CDC, 2013, Antibiotics/Antimicrobial Resistance).  As the Center of Disease Control (2013) states:

These drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective. People infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer, more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection.  (CDC, Antibiotics/Antimicrobial Resistance)

Consumers of CAFO-produced chicken are unknowingly eating antibiotics which can cause them health issues in the future when they require more medicine to cure them of illnesses (CDC, Antibiotics/Antimicrobial Resistance).

The Good News

The downsides of purchasing and consuming industrially produced meat and eggs are considerable; however, there are more reasons than avoiding antibiotic resistant diseases and cruelly handled chickens to support local free range farms instead of CAFOs. Free range farms have been proven to produce better quality chicken meat and eggs and are found to be safer for consumer health (Gorski, 1999).

Chickens are naturally omnivores and will consume legumes and insects if given the chance (Ponte et al., 2008).  In a 2008 study, birds with access to pasture showed an increase of legume and insect consumption compared to when the birds were fed a grain only diet, which demonstrates that the birds prefer legumes and insects to grain (Ponte et al., 2008). Scientist have also shown a positive relationship between what the chickens are fed and the quality of their meat. In the same 2008 study, scientists found that when on a pasture based diet the chicken’s meat had less fat and lower cholesterol compared to a grain only diet (Ponte et al., 2008).  Not only is a pasture based diet better for the birds but their meat is also better for the consumer.  A USDA study determined that, “meat of the pastured chickens was found to display 21% less fat, 30% less saturated fat, and 50% more vitamin A than the USDA standard for chicken meat” (Gorski, 1999).  Lower amounts of saturated fat and higher vitamin content per pound of meat is an excellent reason to choose grass-fed chicken meat over industrially raised chickens.

Fig 2. Comparison of yolks in eggs produced by grass-fed chickens (left) and grain fed chickens (right) (HealthBanquet.com LLC,  2009) Retrieved from http://www.healthbanquet.com/free-range-eggs.html)

It has also been proven that there is a significant difference in the nutrients contained in eggs from grass-fed laying hens when compared to CAFOs layers, whether caged or cage-free (Gorski, 1999).  Gorski (1999) also conducted a USDA study looking at a difference in chicken egg quality: “Eggs of the pastured chickens contained 34% less cholesterol, 10% less fat, 40% more vitamin A, twice as much omega-6 fatty acid and four times as much omega-3 fatty acid as the USDA standard.” The study shows an even larger improvement in the quality of pasture raised eggs than in the meat (Gorski, 1999).  Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are essential in the human body and are needed to maintain proper cell health, especially nerve and brain cells (Dolecek  and Grandits, 1991). The minimum daily requirements of fatty acids is actively being researched, but current information estimates “that only 40 percent of Americans consume an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Twenty percent [of Americans] have blood levels [of omega-3 fatty acids] so low that they cannot be detected” (Dolecek  and Grandits, 1991).  When comparing CAFOs eggs, where the chickens were fed only grains, and pasture raised chicken eggs, consumers can visually see a difference in a dark, rich golden yolk due to higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins (Fig 2, HealthBanquet.com, 2009).  Thus, it can be concluded that most Americans can benefit by choosing grass-fed poultry meat and eggs instead of the products produced by industrial farms.

Local farms produce an overall healthier product for the consumer, with less consumer exposure to pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses (Gorski, 1999).  In a USDA study, meat and eggs from grass-fed farms were rinsed in a sterile solution, and then the microbe content of the rinses were evaluated: “Microbial examination revealed no Salmonella, campylobacter or listeria monocytogens in samples of [the rinse]” (Gorski, 1999).  These findings show that grass-fed chicken products are safer for consumers over industrially produced products.  Food-borne illnesses are virtually non-existent in meat and eggs coming from grass-fed poultry living in free range flocks (Gorski, 1999).  This can posibably be due to lower levels of stress in the birds and a diet that doesn’t consist of overused antibiotics.  Local farms produce scientifically healthier poultry products for consumers than meat and eggs from CAFO-raised chickens.

But how can Just Buying from Local Farms be Economical?

            In the United States alone, there are over 300 million people to feed and they cannot be supported by small, local farms alone (United States Census Bureau, 2013).  Large scale chicken farms are the most economical way to feed today’s current and growing population.  Over 99% of the animal products produced for consumer consumption are factory farmed (Farm Forward, 2013).  Humans eat over 100 times more chicken than they did just one century ago, consuming over 9 billion birds a year (Farm Forward, 2013).  Free range farms cannot compete with the product yield that a factory farm can produce, making a clear case that they cannot support the local demand for their products.  Because industrial farming is able to produce such a large number of birds in a short amount of time, producers are able to offer consumers low prices for their products.

Since the Great Recession in 2007, consumers have become very wary of what they have the luxury of spending their money on.  Many Americans are looking for the exact product that industrial farmers can give them, large amounts of meat at the lowest prices; making industrial farms a necessity for consumers.  Because feeding one’s family and saving money wherever necessary is many American’s main priority, small local farms have suffered because they cannot compete with prices industrial farms can offer.

So What Now?

It has been proven a number of times, and through different studies, that local farms produce higher quality chicken products than those produced in CAFOs.  Industrial farms may produce the least expensive products and in higher amounts than local farms, but at what cost to the consumer? Chickens are not the only animals affected by the industry’s growth promoting feed or contaminated with highly resistant strains of bacteria; for swine and turkeys are also fed chicken meat that was produced using arsenic growth promoting drugs, so now they may contain these harsh drugs too (Tarantino, 2011).  Despite the cheap prices that CAFOs can produce at the grocery store, they are selling consumers very low quality products when compared to grass-fed, free range local farms.

If free range farms can afford to have their own small stores, they may be able to lower their cost slightly by not having to pay large supermarkets to carry their products, or pay for shipping.  Depending on which products they produce, local farms could have a small deli where consumers can go on their lunch break and get a chicken or turkey sandwich, like at Diemand Poultry Farm in Wendell, MA (CISA, 2013).  At Diamand’s small store they sell freshly made turkey and egg salad sandwiches daily, along with having eggs for sale and other handmade products like jams (CISA, 2013).  With local options available, consumers are advised to take a few minutes out of their day, and a few extra dollars, and invest them into buying from reputable local poultry farms; not just for better quality meat and eggs, but also for their current and future health.


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