Expert Voices

Got Chlorine? Your Chicken Might (Op-Ed)

A plate of grilled chicken and potatoes
(Image credit: Chicken meal photo via Shutterstock)

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

You know that feeling when you get out of a heavily chlorinated pool? Despite just having been submerged in water, you feel like you need to jump in the shower. Now imagine that sensation not on your skin, but in your mouth.

That's essentially what happens today when people eat chickens from most American factory farms. To kill fecal contamination on chicken flesh, factories typically drench bird carcasses in chlorine. It is a practice so unappetizing that the nation's trading partners, like Russia and the European Union, have restricted American poultry imports over it.

To understand why U.S. poultry companies would rather risk export markets than stop dipping birds in chlorine, it's helpful to understand how bad the fecal contamination is. A 2014 Consumer Reports exposé revealed that virtually all — 97 percent — of chicken breasts in the United States harbor dangerous pathogens like Salmonella  and E. coli, transmitted via feces, and clearly not fully eliminated by the chlorine. Moreover, even after chlorine treatment, the meat later can potentially be exposed to pathogens and contaminated. 

So why is there so much poop on our nation's poultry? 

Most producers confine chickens by the tens of thousands inside huge, dank warehouses, in which the animals have little to do but eat and sit down, mostly in their own feces. These chickens — animals who are normally quite athletic — are genetically manipulated to grow so obese, so fast, that many can't take more than a few pitiful steps before collapsing under the enormous weight of their oversized breasts. 

Animal-science expert Temple Grandin summed it up bluntly: "Today's poultry chicken has been bred to grow so rapidly that its legs can collapse under the weight of its ballooning body. It's awful." [As Superbugs Rise, New Studies Point To Factory Farms (Op-Ed )]

Awful indeed, as is the amount of time the animals spend wallowing in manure, often not only their own. When producers bring a new flock of birds into a shed, standard practice is to leave the manure-laden litter from past flocks on the ground. So every couple months, new birds are living on top of prior generations' waste.

To make matters worse, just in time for grilling season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was proposing rules that could have further increased contamination. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the proposed speeding up poultry slaughter lines, while at the same time removing several hundred government inspectors from slaughter plants. At those slaughter plants, workers often haphazardly shackle live birds on already fast-moving lines. It's such an imprecise process that nearly a million birds are inadequately stunned and slaughtered every year, according to the USDA. Those animals end up in "defeathering tanks," essentially vats of scalding-hot water, while fully conscious. As a first order of business in those tanks, the birds let loose all their waste. It's the same water that countless other birds will then be put through, spreading feces from bird to bird like a wildfire on a dry day. 

So, faster moving lines could mean even more birds will enter the scalding tanks while conscious, resulting in more fecal contamination, and as the Washington Post described, more potential for animal suffering and food-safety problems at chicken slaughter plants. The USDA is now seemingly backing off its poultry line speed acceleration proposal, but is still aiming to cut 800 government inspectors at poultry plants, allowing further self-regulation in the chicken industry. It's clear that the chlorine is simply an attempt to put lipstick on a pig — or decontaminant on a chicken.

As Americans grapple with a long string of meat recalls, periodic episodes of food-poisoning outbreaks that sicken many (and sometimes kill), and trade restrictions due to unsafe meat, perhaps it's time to start looking at the root of the problem. We need to recognize that mistreating farm animals is bad for them — and for us. 

If this prompts more Americans to eat less meat and more plant-based meals, good. This not only will reduce the amount of suffering inflicted upon these animals, but move the country toward a more humane society — and one, hopefully, where people are more likely to encounter  chlorine in the pool than in their meals.

You can follow the author at Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter, and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

The Humane Society of the United States