The Green Plate: Down with Factory Chicken Flesh

on January 12, 2011 in Food

What is it with people and their boneless, skinless chicken breasts?

Especially the smug ones who think they are being so green and healthy by eating a low fat white meat? True, most chicken is lower in fat than beef or pork. But how nutritious, really, is our mass-produced, mass-market chicken? My theory is that it’s so innocuous seeming, so flavorless, and so personality-less, that the ubiquitous boneless skinless chicken breast contributes more than it should to thoughtless flesh eating, which we need a whole lot less of.

What do I mean by thoughtless flesh eating? When you don’t need to see bones, gristle, or skin, or anything that looks remotely like it came from an animal, you could easily forget you are eating one. We’ve all done it. Ordered the chicken Caesar in a restaurant, thinking we are getting our much-needed protein and eating something healthy and eco-friendly. A Caesar is a classic salad that wasn’t meant to have chicken on it (or cheap grilled farmed salmon either, but that’s another story).

Think about it. Where do all those breasts come from and what happens to the rest of the chicken?

Mass-market chicken breasts are produced on giant factory farms where manure runoff pollutes the water and noxious ammonia fumes pollute the air. The chickens live in such misery and under such stress that they get sick and can even carry bacteria like campylobacter in their flesh and sicken us. The chickens are transferred from the factory farm to the poultry plant, during which they can spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria into surrounding area farms.

Once at the plant, the chickens have lived and been transported under such filthy conditions, that their flesh must be treated with chlorine to ensure they don’t carry salmonella into our kitchens. The workers who process these chickens are typically undocumented immigrants or other people with little political or economic power. They are exposed to the chlorine and filth during the dirty, dangerous jobs they perform. The chickens must be killed, hung, and hand-deboned under freezing and slippery conditions. Poultry plant work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Serious lacerations and repetitive motion injuries are common. Read this short account of a typical day for a poultry plant worker. If you can stand it, read the entire series in the Charlotte Observer. After the chicken is separated into breasts, legs, and thighs for our consumption, the leftover parts are mechanically separated to produce goodies like chicken tenders and those fast food restaurant chicken sandwiches. Don’t click on that link if you consider such foods to be one of your staple diet items.

So what’s the solution to mass-market, factory farmed chicken breasts? I’ll propose a few.

1. Eat less meat overall. For low on the food chain eating tips, read this post. For a realistic look at how much protein a body needs, check this out. For great tofu-less ideas here are 7 Delicious Meat Alternatives to help you discover new ways to cook.

2. Eat meat consciously. Remember you are eating an animal. Respect and honor that fact however you think is best.

3. Treat all meat as a special occasion food and buy the better stuff produced by small family farms. It will be more expensive but it tastes better too.

4. If you aren’t yet ready to lower your consumption, look to one of the humanely certified choices on the market.

5. Eat the whole animal. Seriously, head to tail eating and butchery are top trends. Cutting up your own steer might not be on your list of things to do before you die, but certainly we can all manage to cook a whole chicken every now and then.

Why? It’s more economical, it bypasses some of the processing issues with poultry, and it reminds you that you’re eating an animal. Plus, trust me, there is so much more flavor in a whole chicken than there is in a boneless, skinless piece of chicken flesh. Once you’ve cooked your whole chicken you can easily transform the shredded meat into salads, soups, enchiladas, tacos, sandwiches, or any number of other delightful dishes.

3 Great Ways to Cook a Whole Chicken:

1. Roast It: Remove any giblets and neck from cavity. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dry the chicken and sprinkle it with salt and pepper, inside and out. If you want (but it’s not required) stuff the cavity with 2 lemons that you’ve poked with a fork in a few places, and/or a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, and/or a couple cloves of garlic. Put the chicken in a roasting pan, breast down. Roast for about 30 minutes. Turn the chicken over, increase heat to 400 degrees and continue to roast for an additional 30 minutes or so. The chicken is done when the juices run clear from the cavity when the chicken is tipped and also from the thickest part of the thigh when you poke it with a sharp knife.*

2. Poach It: This is hands-down my favorite and the easiest way to cook a whole chicken. It’s a common whole chicken cooking method in both Chinese and Mexican cooking. Simply change up the aromatics you use to match the cuisine. The best thing about this method is that it yields a free soup! Remove any giblets and neck from cavity. Put a whole chicken in a large stockpot. Pour in cold water to cover, add onion, garlic, cilantro sprigs, whole peppercorns, salt, a bay leaf, and whole cumin seeds and Mexican oregano (both optional). Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, lower heat to medium low. Simmer, partially covered, for 15 or 20 minutes. Turn off heat, cover and let sit, undisturbed for 1 hour. Strain and reserve broth for soup. For a different flavor profile, you might add ginger, garlic, green onions, and celery. Get creative!

3. Slow Cook It: Remove any giblets and neck from cavity. Rub the chicken with salt and/or pepper or a spice rub of your choice. Put the chicken in a slow cooker large enough to contain it. Add a chopped onion, a rib of celery, cut up, a couple of smashed whole garlic cloves, and some sprigs of fresh herbs (all optional except the salt and pepper) Add about a cup of water, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours.

*This is a variation of Marcella Hazan’s famous chicken with 2 lemons.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: CALM Action