Category Archives: free-range chickens

GMO Bill Heads To White House – Why?

GMO_bil_label

With both the Senate and the House of Representatives signed off on it, a much-discussed, somewhat controversial bill concerning the labeling of genetically modified foods is on its way to the White House for signing by President Obama.

The bill has been hailed by some in the food industry and soundly decried by others. And an ‘interactive feature’ in The New York Times last week gave consumers pause to consider how much better off, or wiser, they’ll be (or not) with this or any other GMO-oriented legislation.

The July 11 New York Times piece (cited above) pretty much sums up what consumers need to know, right now, or in the foreseeable future, on the GMO issue. (Spoiler: The issue isn’t as big a deal many would have you believe.)

The problem comes with the concept of genetic manipulation of food, and where it happens in the food chain. At first glance, if you were unfortunate enough to see a ‘modern’ bred-for-cooking chicken in the flesh, as it were, your first reaction no doubt would be, ‘nature would never make something that looks, and is, by design, as physically challenged as this poor creature is’. And you’d be right.

fat chickens

An unfortunately large number of the chickens bred these days for eating – so called ‘food chickens – are a far cry, physically, from their ancestors of half a century ago. They’ve been dramatically ‘modified’ by selective breeding – not by having their genes manipulated. The objective has been to satisfy the public’s desire for white, as opposed to dark, chicken meat, and the best white meat – in terms of quantity and solid volume, is found in the breast. So, chickens have been selectively bred to have enormous breasts – to a point, as The Times interactive feature notes, its “legs can barely support.”

An article linked-to at that point in the ‘interactive’ article goes so far as to describe the selective breeding of chickens – “modern chicken genetics” – as “a form of abuse”: Chickens today, the linked-to piece says, “stagger about, sometimes on splayed legs, or mostly just sit down.”

A good share of the corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified so it resistant to the chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup. This gene modification was necessary because Roundup is designed to travel down through a broad spectrum of plants, killing them all the way down to their root system. So, it can  keep corn fields pretty clear of weeds that grab moisture the corn needs, etc.

Some think the chemical (glyphosate) is toxic, possibly contributing to the development of cancer, in humans. There’s no real evidence to support that.

The point of the corn gene manipulation is to enable the plant to defeat the chemical’s objective, and it works. As or more important, though, is the fact that in the course of traveling down through a plant to its roots, the glyphosate apparently in no modifies the corn in a way that could be harmful to humans.

(Full disclosure: For the better part of a year, in the mid-1970’s, shortly after Roundup was first marketed, I helped promote it by producing, at Monsanto’s expense, ‘user stories’ from farmers, municipal and state roadside maintenance authorities, NASA, the Orange Bowl, cemetery managers, wholesale plant growers, lawn care professionals, and many others from one side of the U.S. to the other. The articles were placed in trade magazine serving specific trades – and they were glad to get them, because Roundup was, and still widely is, considered to be something of a ‘miracle product’ that cuts labor costs by vastly reducing the amount of time it takes to clear away unwanted plants.

(A Monsanto sales rep I traveled with in Texas told me a story of an instance where a woman complained to him that Roundup was “killing my dogs, my chickens and my kids; Notice the priorities, there, he said.” His response: He pulled out a sample size of the product – a couple of ounces – and promptly drank it! “She all but fainted,” he laughed.)

Another issue, also pointed out in The Times’ interactive piece, is the fact that, with GMOs being talked about by some as posing health risks (no proof, so far) et cetera, some manufacturers are sticking ‘GMO free’ and similar labels on products – including ground oats, and water – where GMOs are not an issue!

Sadly, there is no ‘safe source’ of authoritative information on whether or not, ultimately, some GMOs might be found to be less than beneficial, without posing any risk to humans.

Chickens are routinely fed genetically modified grain – modified to help chickens ward off diseases. No one has ever suggested that GMO grain, or the breeding manipulations causing chickens to grown far faster and end up with far great breast weights than nature intended, is causing fried chicken eaters to gain weight or developed clogged arteries. Both have a far more direct relationship to the cooking fat that favorite food is cooked in.

People notoriously try to blame ‘something else’ on such conditions as having high blood pressure (cut your salt intake!) water retention (ditto’) or being too ‘bulky’ (you can see where this is going!).

In the grand scheme of things, as we can see that scheme today, GMOs are the least of the worries of people who consume way too much salt, and sugar (in the form of soft drinks, candy, etc.) and fail to exercise.

For the moment, it would be best to keep the GMO ‘threat’ in perspective: It ain’t one, that anyone’s been able to pin down.

The president can sign the bill, creating a new law, and the food industry can say – or it could, if the language of the bill were clear enough – ‘see, we’re doing what you want! Isn’t that wonderful?’

No, in fact, it isn’t.

I’ve worked (as a writer) on the fringe of the food industry for the better part of forty years. The technological changes in that time – what’s known now that wasn’t even imaged then – is mind boggling. Maybe there’s some reason why, in some instances, genetically modified foods might pose a risk of some sort to people. Maybe there isn’t. But none of what I regularly read about developments in the trade suggest there’s any reason why careful manipulations shouldn’t continue, when risk are clearly evaluated and taken into consideration.

A lot of what Congress does is wheel-spinning, or publicity-oriented. This bill may represent one, the other or both of those. What it doesn’t represent is a viable means of addressing what may, or may not,  be an issue worth getting excited about. Or wasting all the Congressional time and energy this bill has.

While some Congressional bills may require as few as two pages  – the one authorizing President Obama to give gold medals to the Apollo astronauts on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing – many spending bills and some others are notorious for filling 1,000 or more pages.

Multiply than times 500 or so – for 435 members of Congress plus other need-to-see’s. That amounts to 1,000 reams of paper – at 500 pages per ream – per bill. And that’s just the House version.

Every month, I attend meetings of county-level Board of Supervisors in Virginia meetings where the agenda, including multiple pages of explanatory files and charts, etc., is readily available on tablet-sized computers placed conveniently in front of each Supervisor. Small towns, as mine is (at 4,000 or so souls), and right-thinking counties really need to watch their expenditures, and it’s pretty obvious that using even a few reams of paper to duplicate, every month, something stored in an electronic file, is beyond wasteful: It’s an irresponsible use of public money.

Call me stupid, but I have enough faith that those who produce the food we eat, have no interest whatsoever in poisoning us. I can’t imagine any major (or even a minor) food producer introducing GMO ingredients into what they intend to market if they had the least suspicion the GMO aspect could put their customers – members of the shopping and consuming public – at risk.

All else aside, doing so would be illegal under existing law. The about-to-be GMO labeling law is highly unlikely to have any positive effect, but certainly could have some negative ones: Companies charged with mislabeling when the ‘facts’, between the complainant  and the accused, are, well, disputable.

 

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A Happy Chicken Is … A Tastier Chicken?

Chickens

“We are going to go beyond what a chicken needs and give chickens what they want,” said Jim Perdue, whose grandfather founded the eponymous business in 1920, to the New York Times.

No more dark barns. Brighter ones – with windows, no less! – ideally without the continuous din of thousands of chickens saying whatever it is that penned-up (if not caged-up) chickens say. Maybe they’ve been asking for healthier quarters, less crowding, maybe even a choice between ‘meat’ (in the form of ground-up bones and an awful assortment of offal) and ‘fish’ (even if it is ground up, bones included, and served in a near-powder form mixed with enough antibiotics to kill a horse (or assorted  ailments likely to affect chickens).

The Times reported Saturday (June 26) on how, at a Seaford, Delaware, chicken-raising facility – to call it a ‘house’ would grossly abuse the latter term; to call it a ‘factory farm’ would fly in the face of the expensive efforts Perdue, like a few other chicken producers, are undergoing to both treat their ‘product’ – their chickens – more humanely but also to get them to look and taste more like chickens did before the era of mass chicken production dawned in the mid-20th Century.

In the 1960’s, in New York City, one could go into an A&P supermarket on 6th Avenue and buy on-sale chicken for $0.19 (19¢) per pound. Today, that same factory-produced, way-too-fatty chicken would cost more like $1.19 per pound – and be even more laden with antibiotics and other chemicals employed primarily to grow chickens incredibly fast – “forced to grow 65 times faster than their bodies normally would, and the industry continually seeks to increase their growth rate,” says the website freefromharm.org.

I was fortunate a couple of years ago to be at the right place at the right time, when an Amish farmer a couple of counties away was taking orders for his field-raised, antibiotic-free chickens. Foolishly, I ordered only one.

I grew up in a time (the late 1940’s – early ‘50’s) when chickens were produced one at a time, at the pace nature dictated. There was no such thing as antibiotic feeding at that time; the chickens I occasionally saw slaughtered with a single swipe of an ax as the undoubtedly-unhappy bird was held down over a tree-stump chopping block were as ‘pure’ as anyone could want a chicken to be – and they tasted like it, whether portioned and fried or cooked whole in the oven or under the broiler.

An up-the-road neighbors is raising chickens facing as similar fate. But will his be as ‘natural-tasting’ as the Amish guy’s? Probably not. The neighbors’ are penned, and probably are fed a commercial meal geared toward rapid growth.

Jim Perdue, whose grandfather I met on several occasions, is due a lot of praise for the efforts his company, one of the largest chicken-processing operations in the U.S., is making to get back, as far as is commercial practical, to natural chicken-raising.

Clearly, though, there is a limit to how far mass producers of any foodstuff such as chickens – which, with turkeys, account for 99% of land animals slaughtered for food in the U.S. – can profitably go as they seek to meet the growing demand of consumers, and the ongoing pressure of humane interest groups.

But the good news, for chickens and those who consume them, is that efforts are being made to move them from embryo to appetite-satisfying in ways that will benefit both the creatures and those who consume them.