Monday, March 17, 2008

What to eat...Chicken.

Here we go, a staple of the American diet.  What Chickens should we eat?  This question is confusing to answer due to the common usage of somewhat empty terms:  Organic, Free-Range, All-Natural, etc.  So let's do some clearing up.  I love chicken, and finding the right chicken to consume is important to me.  If it is important to you also, read on.

The basics:  
1.  What do chickens eat:
Chickens are omnivores.  A vegetarian diet is not vital.  But the mythology of the vegetarian diet as most healthy has extended to chickens, who happen to be voracious consumers of other animated life forms.  Basically, chickens eat anything and everything, so a chicken is not necessarily better if it has been raised on a  vegetarian diet.  An old style farm diet for a chicken consists of insects, worms, detritus off of cow manure, human food waste, as well as grass and seeds.  Chickens are tremendously well suited to converting massive piles of manure and waste into the lifeblood of the farm - Compost.  The folks at Vermont Compost Company use chickens as their primary processing mechanism in their production of compost.  Their chickens forage on a local grass and huge piles of food waste from surrounding institutions such as Ben & Jerry's.  

2.  To free range or not to free range.
Free-Range in the business of chickens just means that the chickens are free to roam around.  It has no stipulations for the conditions of the houses, the number of chickens or the location of the birds (in or out of doors).  As a result, most "free-range" birds are housebound, in large structures with concrete floors, packed to the nines into relatively small spaces, and given the freedom to roam around pecking each other's eyes out with aplomb.  A far cry from the 'happy hen' myth propagated by food production labeling.   
The inability to properly manage large flocks of bellicose fowl has led companies like Bell & Evans to forego the titular "free-range" markings for their more manageable "free to roam".  Bell & Evans, according to their website, keep the chickens in spacious pens that they may be better managed and kept from injury and disease.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why their chickens were recently voted best tasting by the New York Times.  
In the end, the best of all possible worlds is totally free-ranging, low population birds, but the title alone is not enough to ensure quality.  The best bet is to go to local farmer's markets and find your local chicken farmers.  In New York City, fresh chicken is available at several Green Markets and some Grocery stores.  Check out Dine's Farm based out of the Catskills, for a listing of purveyors.  

3.  Cost.  
If you are looking for that 69 cent/lb chicken, then buy your week old big ol' industrial chemical Perdue Roaster.  The conditions for most industry birds are devastating, the foods they eat - deeply embroiled in the Corn-Soy matrix that has destroyed the Corn Belt.  

If you want the right thing, go to the markets, find your local farmers,  even if it will cost you 3 or 4 times as much.  It will likely taste 3 or 4 times better, so all is fair.

For those that want a compromise, go for the Bell & Evans, the hybrid of the chicken market.  They are big, but they have much better policies then the other big producers.  You can be sure of healthy clean chicken meat at least.  Though Bell & Evans will probably cost as much as the local farmer's market birds.  This whole thing is inevitable, we must spend more to right the scales.  Growing a bio-dynamic chicken costs more, takes longer, consumes no fossil fuel or chemicals, removes waste from the environment, and adds vital nitrogen to compost. 

4.  Where to find better birds:

Eat Wild, an advocacy site for grass-fed and pastured meat consumables has a locator, check it out here.

Good hunting, Be Well.

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