Chicken has been hailed as the ideal source for dietary protein because of its comparatively low fat content. When other meat sources like beef and pork got pushed off our dinner plates labeled as red meat, the demand for chicken saw an unprecedented rise. This hatched an intensive poultry-rearing industry geared to meet the ever-increasing demand.
Why Is Chicken Good For You?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, published by the federal government, recommends chicken as a good protein source with low saturated fat content. For example, 100 grams of chicken (without skin) contain only 4 grams of total fat. In that, just one gram is saturated fat. Besides containing 8 essential amino acids, chicken is a good source of vitamins B3, B6 and B7. It is rich in zinc and iron, and low in sodium, too.
After a lull of nearly three years since 2010, consumption of chicken is showing an upward trend again, as the country recovers from economic recession. But, what is disturbing is that the quality of the chicken is increasingly become questionable.
Cause for discomfort?
Chicken has become a comfort food, as is evident from the title of Jack Canfield’s ever popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But a peek into the inhumane way chicken are reared in overcrowded cages, and the sometimes questionable conditions in which they are processed, can be extremely discomforting. Add to that the recent reports in The Washington Post about how unscrupulous companies use increasingly large amounts of chemicals  to mask the presence of disease-causing germs in their products.
How are chickens tested for harmful germs?
The federal inspectors routinely take samples by dipping random specimens pulled off the poultry processing lines into a solution. This is then tested for the presence of harmful microorganisms like salmonella.
Manufacturers chemically  treat the chicken to reduce the bacterial count, but the testing solution effectively neutralized those chemicals. But, the use of several new chemicals at high concentrations has resulted in those antibiotics continuing to be active in the testing solution, killing off the offending organisms by the time it reaches the lab. The false negative  results hoodwink the inspectors into green flagging the production line which actually harbor the germs that cause food poisoning.
It should be noted that these highly potent chemicals do not remove the risk of food poisoning as is evident from the incidences of salmonella poisoning. They only add to the chemical overload we are subjected to as consumers. These chemicals can cause allergic reactions such as dermatitis and respiratory distress in susceptible people.
This finally explained the discrepancy between the lack of detection of salmonella at source by the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), and actual presence of the dangerous organisms  in the chicken consumed, as reported by Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Why are chickens treated with chemicals?
In the present scenario, more than 70 percent of poultry is mass produced in large establishments. They are grown in crowded cages with barely enough space to stand and turn around. Often, they spend their entire life in an area of an A4 size sheet. Not being able to indulge in their normal habits, these animals tend to peck each other. Sometimes, their beaks are clipped to prevent this.
Devoid of sunlight and fresh air, these birds become extremely prone to diseases, too. Vaccinations against potential diseases and antibiotics to treat infections are very much part of the poultry industry. Another cause of concern is the genetically modified food items used in the artificial diet fed to them. Preservatives and salt solution are injected into the chicken to increase flavor and keeping quality.
By the time the chickens are ready for the market, usually when they are about 60 days old, many of them have damaged eyes and lungs due to living in an atmosphere high in ammonia gas emanating from their own excreta. The birds are often lame too, because of the sudden weight gain.
Salmonella and other organisms are common in these chickens. After they are killed and dressed, the chickens are dipped in chemical solutions to remove the germs.
Do we have an alternative to chemically treated chicken?
A definitely healthier alternative to chemically treated chicken is free-range chicken. They are reared in open pastures  during the day, so that they get to eat a variety of insects, worms and grass seeds. Foraging for food, dust bathing to remove pests, and roosting, are natural habits of these birds. They contribute to their physical and mental well-being.
Diseases are rare in pasture-bred chicken and vaccinations and antibiotics are not usually required. However, they need plenty of fresh water, and a safe place to roost at night, in addition to nutritional supplementation. Feeding organically grown foods to the birds is necessary to qualify for the organic label.
Organically grown eggs have higher levels of beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A and E. It is the beta-carotene pigment that gives the bright orange-yellow color to the egg yolk that clearly distinguishes a free-range egg from a farmed egg.
The advantages of rearing free range chicken
The best way to ensure 100 percent organic, free-range chicken is to raise your own. If space permits (you don’t need much), several broilers and a few layers can be reared to meet the meat and egg requirement of the family. The popular breeds are Cornish Cross and Delaware as broilers, and Leghorns and Rhode Island Red as layers. Ancona produces colorful eggs which are in high demand.
Besides providing healthy food, free-range chicken rearing offer many other advantages to the farm and the farmer too:
- Increasing soil fertility: The droppings are scattered all over the ground, making the soil more fertile.
- Pest control: Insects and caterpillars are effectively controlled by the foraging chickens.
- Maximum use of resources: Many farm byproducts can be turned into chicken feed at no extra cost.
- Extra income: Meat, eggs and manure collected from the night enclosure, can be sold for profit.
Chicken tractors are a sustainable way of chicken rearing. The birds are housed in mobile units which can be moved to different areas of the yard/pasture. The pecking and scratching by the chickens incorporate the manure into the soil. When the weeds and pests within the enclosure are controlled, it can be moved to another area.
The good news for both consumers and chickens is that increased awareness about the health benefits of organic food is slowly, but steadily, creating a ready market for free-range chickens and eggs as people understand better their stewardship role.