By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As if eggs aren’t confusing enough, with their many labels, many of which (natural) mean nothing. Organic chickens apparently aren’t everything you’d hoped they’d be either.

Free_range_chicken_flock

Free range chickens (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

You may have already heard how large Organic-certified broiler operations fudge on the sunlight and movement requirements for their poultry, providing teeny doors that one chicken among hundreds may never find, and outdoor ledges that seem equally inadequate to the task.

Not comes news that Organic-certified chickens may have been dosed, while in the egg, with a small amount of antibiotic, one of the very things consumers are trying to avoid by buying Organic.

This loophole arose because the chick hatcheries were exempted from the no-antibiotic provisions that apply to live chickens. That is, the chickens receive this dose literally while in the egg, according to research by agriculture reporter Tom Philpott of Mother Jones.

In his January article, Philpott explains that the eggs destined to become your Organic chicken receive a small amount of the antibiotic gentamicin, ostensibly to prevent infection after the embryo is immunized against a virus that affects chickens, Merek’s disease.

The antibiotic is injected to prevent infection from the tiny hole created by the immunization, the industry reports. But one of Philpott’s sources, a sustainable food system expert at Johns Hopkins, questions that motive. He suspects is the real reason is … you can probably guess… the antibiotic helps speed growth.

Robert Martin, director of food system policy at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future told Philpott that he’d witnessed these injections take place in 2007 while he chaired a Pew study on industrial animal production and surmised that they “probably aid in rapid growth of the chick in the egg.”

There’s no telling how many poultry producers are using gentamicin in their hatchery eggs, apparently US officials do not keep track of such details (or aren’t willing to tell us if they do).

To be fair, the chicken producers may consider the vaccine to be important. After all, with chickens jam-packed in poultry houses, producers cannot afford to lose them to disease, there’s plenty of loss already due to the overcrowding and rough handling.

Philpott reports that Purdue has reduced its use of the antibiotic to service it’s Organic and antibiotic-free labels, like Rosies (whew!).

A word to the wise: Look for Antibiotic-Free chickens. This loophole doesn’t apply to this label. Usually Organic trumps less single-item certifications, but in this case, you really want Antibiotic-Free and Organic.

In the meantime, explore other ways to secure unadulterated chickens: Find a local farmer who sells direct or head to the farmer’s market where you’re likely to find pastured chickens, and while you’re asking how they were raised, be sure to inquire about their hatchery and whether or not they were vaccinated for Marek’s.

This is admittedly getting into the fine details. I barely know this much about my kids’ vaccination history, and I can imagine that some farmers may not even know when you first ask. But sadly, with our food systems’ total focuses on production and profits, we consumers have to become experts. (I can recall asking the fellow from whom we buy tortilla chips whether his source corn was GMO or not. He didn’t know at first, but within weeks, he had put up a NonGMO sign at his booth at our farmers market.)

The bottomline is if you make the effort to buy antibiotic-free, you’ll save yourself needless exposure to antibiotics and contribute to a cleaner system overall.

We now know without doubt that antibiotic resistance originates in part, and perhaps in large part, in our “modern” industrial food systems. Do we even need to review the number of people estimated to die each year in the United States as a result of antibiotic resistance?

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