1st February, 2003
Last month the Food Standards Agency declared that eating organic chickens increases risk of campylobacter poisoning. So what?
A bacteria commonly carried in the gut of birds where it does no harm. An infectious strain, c. jejuni, can cause food poisoning in humans, but being fragile and heat sensitive it is effectively killed by proper cooking.
Research conducted by Professor John Humphrey, a scientist sponsored by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), revealed that organic free-range chickens are twice as likely to carry the campylobacter bacteria as battery-reared hens. These bacteria can cause campylobacteriosis, a form of food poisoning in humans that can lead to diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever and, very rarely paralysis. Preliminary results were released at an FSA public meeting on organic food on 6 November 2002. Testing 60 organic and 130 conventional flocks, the study found that the bacteria were present in all of the former but only 58 per cent of the latter.
Organics and the Food Standards Agency
• The Food Standards Agency, which sponsored the research, has a history of policies that are anti-organic food and are championed by its director Sir John Krebs. According to the FSA organic food is not significantly different in terms of safety and nutrition from that produced by conventional means.
• The Soil Association says it has broken off all talks with the FSA until ‘it is able to look at organic food and farming with a more open mind’.
• The agency has clashed with the environment minister Michael Meacher after being asked to be more positive about benefits of organic food.
• ‘If the FSA is to be anything more than a useless and expensive clone of MAFF, it needs to represent informed consumer opinion. Post-BSE, consumers have shown very clearly what kind of food they trust: it's no coincidence, after all, that our supermarkets are now brimming with organic food, while GM food is being forced off the shelves. Yet the FSA seems to be pursuing a curiously contrary agenda.’ – Joanna Blythman writing in The Guardian.
Who is Sir John Krebs?
The Soil Association accuses Krebs of being a ‘historic supporter of GM foods’ and believes that he is biased against organic farming.
He added fuel to the fire by claiming that manure caused much more air and water pollution than do chemical fertilisers. After delivering the annual St Andrew's Prize Lecture in London, he explained that his purpose had been to ‘undermine’ claims that organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture.
Krebs then made a high-profile attack on organic food, in the words of The Times, as ‘an image-led fad’. Dr Patrick Wall, the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has described Krebs' views on organic food as ‘extreme’.
Chickens are much smarter than you think
Chickens are far less simple-minded than most believe. They make sounds with actual meaning. Golden bantams, for example, have an elaborate calling system with some 25 different vocal calls in their ‘vocabulary’.
Chickens give different alarm calls for different predatory animals, be they foxes, hawks or, presumably, KFC. They don't, however, bother to broadcast warnings if there are no other chickens around.
Chickens are not only aware of their audience’s presence, they play up to it. Roosters, in particular, like a female audience and aren't opposed to using trickery to get one – giving ‘food over here’ calls, for instance, when there's no food nearby, in order to lure in an attractive hen.
… in an egg cup?
• Virtually everyone infected with campylobater will recover within 5–7 days without any specific treatment.
• The bacteria are found naturally in high numbers in a chicken’s gut, but only specific strains are harmful.
• The low contamination rates in battery hens are likely to be due to various antibiotics administered, which in effect lower their natural immunity.
• The Food Standards Agency went on to admit: ‘As long as meat is handled, stored and cooked thoroughly, that should kill any bacteria.’
• Therefore, if any meat – organic or conventional, poultry or pork – were to be prepared correctly the bacteria would present no problem.
• Jerry Wells, head of campylobacter research at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, stressed that eating organic chickens would not mean there was twice the risk of illness.
What strains of the bacteria were present? The incomplete research fails to identify which strains were present.
It is possible that the contamination may have taken place in the abattoir where the chickens were slaughtered. The research has so far not been officially published or peer reviewed. Then again, if you put tens of thousands of them in a shed filled with cramped cages, it all tends to sound like the squawking of a dumb bird.
• The average battery hen yields 338 eggs per year
• Naturally, hens lay one egg every two days or 182 per year
British Egg Information Service (BEIS)
The BEIS claims that beak-trimming is essential in free-range chickens, but not in battery ones, as restricted space suppresses their aggression!
A MORI poll found 86 per cent of the British public think that battery farming is cruel and 78 per cent think it should be banned.
UK Egg Stats 2001
Market value: £920 million
Number of laying birds: 27.5 million
Total production: 9,636 million per annum, of which:
• Battery hens lay 81 per cent
• Free-range hens lay 15 per cent
• Barn hens lay four per cent
Total imports: 1,332 million
Total egg consumption: 10,824 million or 174 eggs per person per year
There are only five main suppliers of egg products: Deans Foods, Freshfayre Products Ltd, Parker Foods, and Stonegate Food Ingredients Ltd. These companies control industry via the British Egg Producers Association.
Compassion in World Farming Statistics
• Broiler average life span: 41 days
• Natural average life span: 5–7 years, but can live up to 20
• UK; 2001: 805 million broilers were slaughtered, compared with 447 million in 1985.
• Birds cannot stretch or flap wings.
• They cannot scratch and peck due to bare metal cage.
• Close proximity causes aggression between hens, often de-beaked to stop this.
• Live in artificial environment (increasing day-length) to maximise laying time.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2003
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