Grocery store chicken has become a hot spot of concern for consumers. Factory farming practices have been used for a long time now, but people are waking up to the many undesirable aspects of this type of food. Chickens in factory farms seem to be particularly dirty, infected with multiple dangerous bacteria that can make us very sick which is why we're seeing an uptick in alternative chicken growers. Our dollars are voting, and people are increasingly fueled by a craving for healthier choices all around. We want to know where our food is coming from.
So what's the difference between air-chilled chicken and water-chilled chicken? And is one really any better than the other? Well, I went on a fact-finding mission to figure it out, and in an effort to keep things relatively short and simple, I'm just highlighting the major points of this discussion.
First of all, there are many marketing ploys out there to make us believe we're getting the ultimate healthy piece of meat, but much of it is just word play. Hormone and steroid-free chicken is one example. Farmers are not allowed to administer hormones or steroids to chickens due to federal regulations, so this is a silly ploy used to fool us. Additionally, companies are allowed to claim their chickens are free-range if they have a door that goes outside even though the birds need never step foot outdoors at all. There are only a couple of requirements for growing organic chickens too. They must be given organic feed, which is a definite plus, and they must have access to the outdoors, again, even if they never venture outside once in their lives.
The bottom line is that there are better chickens available to us, but there are very few really quality grocery store chicken growers out there and their birds tend to be more expensive.
As far as chilling, chicken farmers are required to cool their birds to 40°F immediately after slaughter to inhibit bacteria growth and spoiling.
Almost all mass chicken producers use the water-chilling method for after-slaughter cooling, and most major grocery store providers use the factory farming growing method. In addition, most (likely all) of the time they vaccinate and treat their flocks with antibiotics as well. And aside from the undesirable ingredients and side effects of vaccinations and antibiotics, water-chilling adds another unwanted layer of chemicals on, and in, the chickens.
Let me just say, NONE of these practices constitute a protein I want to feed my growing children.
The Low Down on Air-Chilling vs Water-Chilling
For immersion-chilling, chickens are submerged in a highly chlorinated cold water community bath where they're transported through a very long metal tube to cool completely before further processing. After chilling, the chickens are dunked in an antimicrobial chemical solution as required by the USDA. Mmmm, yumm… Furthermore, chickens are sold by the pound, and after being subjected to a long bath their weight is increased 2-12% due to absorbed water. Big time chicken farmers will tell you that the extra water weeps out of the meat before it's packaged and purchased though. I'm pretty sure I don't buy that, but I guess it's a possibility.
Air-chilled chickens are also subject to factory farming, vaccinations and antibiotics. but they're not submerged in water after slaughter. Most of them are cooled inside big refrigerators instead while being regularly misted with chlorinated water. Air-chilled birds are also required to receive a chemical dip after cooling. Still not ideal, so it's important to know the difference between growers.
A major concern with all chicken is bacterial contamination, primarily salmonella, campylobacter and e-coli. Contamination of chicken seems to be directly affected by the way poultry is raised from the very beginning. Factory farms have the highest rates of contamination because of the poor living conditions that leave chickens muddling around in their own excrement and eating non-organic, excrement-contaminated food. Of all major water-chilled chicken growers, Tyson was the most contaminated and Perdue was the cleanest, according to Consumer Reports.
Air-chilled chicken growers seem to be more inherently aware of the need for healthier meat. After all, the sheer amount of money and labor it takes to implement air-chilling methods shows their desire to provide superior food grown with cleaner living conditions and better handling all around.
Overall, I believe air-chilled chickens to be superior to their water-chilled counterparts even though they can still be non-organic and treated with vaccinations and antibiotics.
Of course, the ideal chicken would be organic, truly free-ranged, air-chilled without chlorine and chemical dipping, and vaccination and antibiotic-free. At this point it appears to be too much to accomplish for current chicken growers, sometimes due to pressing federal regulations, but as you'll see, two air-chilled chicken farmers get impressively close.
So What's the Scoop on Air-chilled Chicken Companies?
Winner, winner chicken dinner!
First place goes to Joyce Farms. I was super impressed to discover that this company treats their poultry with only ozonated water, no chlorine or antimicrobial dip! Joyce Farms chickens are not certified organic, but they're given pesticide-free feed and are truly free-ranged (available in partnership with Whole Foods).
What's ozone you ask? In short, it's oxygen with an extra oxygen atom, O³ instead of O², that provides excellent disinfection and purification properties. Read more here. Ozone is also present in the water filter I use in my home.
Our 2nd place winner is…
Smart Chicken: this company is also very impressive in that their chickens are solely organic, and only purified cold air is used to chill their birds, no chlorine. I couldn't get a response about the antimicrobial dip, so I have to assume they use a USDA approved chemical method (available at many major grocery stores).
And the runners up
- Mary's Chickens are free-ranged and they offer an organic line, although they are treated with chlorinated water and a chemical antimicrobial dip (available in partnership with Whole Foods).
- Bell & Evans is an all organic chicken grower, but the birds are treated with chlorinated water and a chemical antimicrobial dip as well (available in partnership with Whole Foods).
- Coleman Natural offers an additional organic line of products, but their chickens are treated with chlorinated water and a chemical antimicrobial dip (available at many grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Costco and Natural Grocers).
- Miller Poultry has an additional organic line of products, but their chickens are treated with chlorinated water and a chemical antimicrobial dip (available in partnership with Whole Foods).
So there ya go. If you can't grow your own chickens, there are some options out there that will provide better nutrition for your family.