Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Be Aware of the Chicken You Eat! Part 1: Hazards.

Agriculture in Zambia no 6. Broiler chickens: Cheap meat at what price? This first issue of three lists potential dangers of eating broiler chickens and describes briefly how these birds are reared.

Note: The sequel to this post is about malpractices of input suppliers, growers and consumers. Part 3 is about remedial action.

Photo 1. The 6 week old broiler in characteristic posture: sitting next to feeder.

The so-called broiler (or broiler chicken) is by far the main source of chicken meat worldwide. The broiler comes in two types. The minority type is a chicken that needs about 12 weeks to grow to its optimum weight. This type is suited for free range or organic chicken rearing. The majority type, and an overwhelming majority it is, is the regular white broiler sold in a dressed weight range of 0.9 to 2.5 kg. Its life is short: about 3½ week to 7 weeks at the most. That broiler is the subject of this post.

The broiler is produced in many different ways: small scale or large scale; animal friendly or with utter disregard for the wellbeing of the bird; with competent and responsible technical management or without it; by abiding regulations and proper procedure or by flouting and ignoring them; in a sophisticated high tech fashion or simply and manual; for maximum profit or optimum profit; eco friendly or totally unfriendly; in respect of the health of the consumer or in disregard of it.

I shall approach the broiler chicken business firstly from the viewpoint of the consumer, and highlight the dangers of irresponsible growing and consumption. What are the dangers and drawbacks of eating broilers?
1.      Eating broilers may constitute a health hazard.
1.1.  You are eating what has been fed into the bird and a number of these materials are pertinently not meant for you. Industrially produced broiler feed contains “growth enhancers” of usually unspecified composition. Growth enhancers are or may be composed of antibiotics, growth hormones, minerals, vitamins, plant and herbal extracts. Some growth enhancers are residual and/or present in excessive quantities in the chicken, meaning that you eat them with the chicken.
1.2.   The maize (in Zambia about 65% of the feed) or other grain or organic matter that is a constituent of the feed may be contaminated with insecticides or other poison.
1.3.  There is in the bio-industry a tendency to feed “waste” of one form of animal husbandry into another line. Who guarantees you that the bone meal fed to your chicks comes from healthy animals? It might even be that the slaughtering waist of the very chickens themselves is “recycled” back into the chicken feed.
2. Danger of food poisoning by eating chickens that are slaughtered improperly (notably by exposing the carcases to flies, lack of hygiene generally); or by eating dressed chickens that have been stored wrongly (taking too long to cool or freeze, or that have been refrozen after defrosting, or simply been stored too long).
3.   You may (unknowingly) be supporting forms of chicken farming that are “chicken unfriendly” and possibly downright cruel. Examples are overcrowding of the chicken house, poor feeding (e.i., farmers saving on the cost of feed by supplying the chickens with inferior food), poor hygiene, poor slaughtering.
4. You may be supporting forms of chicken farming that pose environmental hazards. A chicken house, for example, is a perfect brooding place for flies and mosquitoes, attracts rats and mice; may develop into a transmitting station of diseases to neighbouring chicken growers and may be the source of foul odours.

Some observations about the life of the broiler
Major problematic issues in broiler production are a direct consequence of the very reasons for which these birds were engineered. Broilers are hybrid birds, bread in the first place for their ability to produce much meat tissue in a short time. The weight gain of these chickens indeed is spectacular. According to one Zambian breeder the broiler should have a live weight of 2.626 kg at the end of week six when ready for slaughter. That means an average weight gain of over 60 gram/day. Other factors also inform the genetic design: the chicks should be docile, suited for the artificial living environment they grow up in and have a favourable feed-meat conversion rate. The chicks are produced on an industrial scale; here in Zambia by Hybrid, Ross and Panda breeders. Chicken farmers need to purchase the chicks from these suppliers or their agents. The chicks are raised in flocks ranging from as small as 50 to as large as several thousands. The mini-birds live under fully artificial conditions; at night light is switched on to entice the chicks to go on eating. Industrial producers have houses with automated temperature, ventilation, feed and water control: the chicks have been incorporated in a mechanical system of manufacture. The broilers live in closed and crowded rooms (up to 10 birds to 1 square meter is accepted practice), constantly excrete, and produce especially after week three a great deal of body heat in an increasingly humid atmosphere.

This strange bird, even if provided with the opportunity to walk about on pasture around the chicken house is usually not keen to do so; hence the notion of a free range commercial broiler of this type is non-sense. The chick, actually, as it gets older is increasingly reluctant to walk. Its muscular development is at odds with the rate of increase in weight. As of the age of four weeks this eating machine prefers to sit close to a feeder to eat in that position. It does not require much imagination to understand that this animal is prone to diseases and stress.

In order to grow at maximum speed the broiler needs special food for each of the three feeding phases of its live. The chick starts with starter, moves on to grower and finishes with finisher. How long (and therefore how much of each type of feed) depends on the desired end product; be it a spring chicken of less than 1 kg to a fully developed bird of some 2.5 kg dressed weight, or anything in between. The three types of feed differ mostly in the amount of protein (starter having most and finisher less) and in the so-called “food supplements” or “growth enhancers.” The composition of the supplements and enhancers is not specified on the bags containing the commercial stock feed. These are or might be vitamins, minerals, growth hormones, prophylactic medication (including antibiotics), and plant and herbal extracts. The “growth enhancer” speeds up the weight gain of the broiler, meaning that the grower needs less time to arrive at a target weight; reduces chances of disease and generally cuts the cost of production.

A responsible chicken stock feed producer eliminates those elements of the “growth enhancers” out of the finisher feed composition that are harmful to the human consumer. Finisher should, for example, not contain antibiotics. The broiler at finisher stage should have ten days to flush out substances which should not be consumed by humans. And a better feed producer would not introduce any antibiotics or growth hormones at all in any of the feeding stages of the bird.

Broilers, for reasons mentioned above, are vulnerable to a range of diseases. The day-old-chicks as supplied by the breeder may or should be vaccinated and the chicken farmer should treat the chickens with lasota and gumboro vaccines. An industrial feed producer such as Tiger Feed routinely adds anti-coccidials to the feed. Chicken farmers have unrestrained access to chicken medication (vaccines and antibiotics) as well as factory made packages of growth enhancers without specified content. It appears that in Zambia there is no regulation in place concerning “permitted” growth enhancers, or the usage and sale of antibiotics. All these things are sold over the counter to anybody wanting to buy them. A withdrawal period, usually of five days, should be observed following the application of antibiotics – only then may the bird be slaughtered for consumption. Such responsible observance is very costly when antibiotics are applied to 5 or 6 week old birds ready for slaughter. At this stage a chicken eats some 200 gr / day costing about K 600 (10 E-cent). For a flock of 200 this amounts to K 600,000 (E 100) in a 5 period and that reduces the profit significantly.  

The drive towards cheap production by chicken farmers and the desire by the consumer to buy cheaply create a situation in which abuses and malpractices can thrive. These are the subject of the next post on broiler chickens.

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