The latest debacle to hit the U.S. poultry industry is rubbery chicken nuggets — in this case due to actual bits of rubber that were found in the food. The discovery came after some unlucky consumers discovered the rubber in their nuggets and contacted the company, Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat producers in the U.S.
More than 36,000 pounds of the nuggets, in more than 7,200 bags, have since been recalled, and if you happen to have any in your freezer, it’s specifically Tyson white meat panko chicken nuggets sold at club stores in 5-pound plastic packages, with a “best if used by” date of November 26, 2019.
The rubber is believed to have come from a seal on a piece of equipment, which was pinched during processing and ended up in the nugget “blend.”1 According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the recall is due to contamination with “extraneous materials,” and although no adverse reactions have been reported, you should not consume them.2
“FSIS is concerned that some product may be frozen and in consumers’ freezers,” the agency said in a news release. “These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.”3
In an unappetizing coincidence, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation recalled more than 58,000 pounds of breaded popcorn chicken products because of reports that they, too, may contain rubber bits. The products were shipped to Publix Super Markets in Florida to be used in the deli department.
The problem was discovered again by a consumer, who warned Publix employees about white rubber in the chicken.4 Rubber bits lurking in your nuggets is, unfortunately, only one of many reasons to be wary of consuming industrial chicken — and these represent only two in a slate of recent recalls.
Perdue Recalls Nuggets Contaminated With Wood, Undeclared Allergens
Perdue, another U.S. poultry giant, also recently recalled more than 68,000 pounds of chicken nuggets due to contamination with extraneous materials, in this case wood. The nuggets, Perdue SimplySmart Organics Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets, Gluten Free, have a best by date of October 25, 2019, and were sold in 22-ounce plastic bag packages in retail locations across the U.S.
“The problem was discovered when the firm received three consumer complaints that wood was found in the product. A complaint was also reported to FSIS’ consumer complaint monitoring system,” FSIS reported.5 It’s unknown how the wood ended up in the nuggets. In a separate incident, Perdue also recalled another 16,000-plus pounds of “fun shapes” chicken nuggets because they contain an undeclared milk allergen.
“These items were produced with the wrong back panel label and have an incorrect ingredient statement that did not have the milk allergen declared on the package,” Perdue stated.6 It’s not an unheard of mistake in the industry. In fact, Taylor Farms also recalled chicken products (about 2,100 pounds’ worth) in February 2019 due to misbranding and undeclared allergens.
The Taylor Farms chicken products were incorrectly labeled as “Chili Relleno” and contain wheat, an allergen not declared on the label.7 FSIS, in announcing the recall, attempted to restore the public’s faith in their services, stating, “FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify that recalling firms are notifying their customers of the recall and that actions are being taken to make certain that the product is no longer available to consumers.”8
As for ensuring contaminated meat products aren’t put on the market in the first place, however, FSIS, which is charged with overseeing the safety of the nation’s meat production, may be missing the mark.
FSIS Uses Questionably High Drug Residue Cutoff Levels
FSIS uses cutoff levels for drug residues in meat that are higher than those recommended by Consumer Reports, other scientists and other government agencies. Known formally as the minimum level of applicability (MLA), FSIS set higher cutoff limits partly in response to updated testing equipment that is able to detect lower amounts of potentially dangerous substances.
Consumer Reports quoted Robert Poppenga, Ph.D., a professor of veterinary toxicology at the California Animal Health & Food Safety Lab at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with the FSIS:9
“Analytical equipment has gotten so sensitive that it’s possible to detect things that you wouldn’t have 20 years ago … [the MLA gives] authorities some flexibility, and if they do find something at a very, very low level, they don’t necessarily have to take regulatory action.”
The high safety thresholds set by FSIS are inconsistent even with those set by other U.S. government agencies. For instance, the FSIS regulatory cutoff for chloramphenicol, an antibiotic, in meat is 3 parts per billion (ppb), but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has blocked imports of shrimp that contained the drug at levels of 0.3 ppb.10
Another drug, the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, has safety cutoffs ranging from 1 to 11 ppb in Europe, in contrast to the FSIS’ much more generous limit of 50 ppb.11 For reasons unknown, FSIS does not use the limit of quantitation (LOQ), which is the lowest amount of a substance that can be reliably measured. LOQ is a widely accepted scientific standard.
Why Your Chicken Dinner Could Be Making You Sick
It’s a sad state of affairs when the potential for rubber bits in a chicken product may be the least of your worries. Disease-causing salmonella is also commonly found in concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) chicken, which makes up most of what’s found in your typical grocery store.
A June 2018 FSIS report found that the extent of salmonella contamination in U.S. chicken parts is largely unknown because 35 percent of large chicken slaughter facilities in the U.S. are not meeting FSIS inspection standards.12
Perhaps in response, in November 2018 FSIS for the first time publically published chicken producers and their rankings on salmonella safety standards, which are updated each week as new samples are tested.
The rankings range from category 1 to 3. Category 1 describes facilities that had less than 50 percent of the maximum allowable salmonella during the testing window. Category 2 describes facilities that had more than 50 percent (but still within the maximum allowed), while category 3 is the worst — facilities that exceeded the maximum level of salmonella.13
If you look at the FSIS rankings,14 what you’ll notice is the frequency of category 2 and 3 on the list. A category 3 ranking isn’t grounds for immediate suspension, either. Instead, FSIS notifies facilities if they don’t meet standards and at that point decide whether further action is needed.
E. Coli in Chicken May Cause UTIs
Aside from salmonella, in a study of 2,500 chicken, pork and turkey samples purchased from large retail stores in Flagstaff, Arizona, nearly 80 percent were found to contain E. coli.15 Even more disturbing, a strain of E. coli known as E. coli ST131 showed up in both the meat samples, particularly poultry, and human urinary tract infection (UTI) samples from people who visited a medical center in the area.
Most of the E. coli in the poultry was a variety known as ST131-H22, which is known to thrive in birds and was also found in the human UTI samples.
“Our results suggest that one ST131 sublineage — ST131-H22 — has become established in poultry populations around the world and that meat may serve as a vehicle for human exposure and infection,” the researchers noted, adding that this E. coli lineage is just one of many that may be transmitted from poultry and other meat sources to people.
Not to mention, while chicken is often viewed as a healthy source of protein, it’s lacking in nutrition, in part because most CAFO chickens are fed grains instead of being able to roam free and eat species-appropriate foods.
The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) also published a study that compared the nutrition of chickens fed on pasture with the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference values for CAFO chicken. The pasture-raised chickens were higher in vitamins D3 and E and had an average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to the USDA’s value of 1-to-15.16
Decades ago, when chicken was still largely raised on small farms, it was reasonable to consider chicken healthy, but not so today. One study from London Metropolitan University found that, compared to 1940, chicken in 2004 contained more than twice as much fat, one-third more calories and one-third less protein, the latter being the main nutritional reason most people eat chicken.17
Antibiotics usage for purposes of growth promotion is another real problem, and one that’s associated with the rise of drug resistance. In November 2017, a report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also revealed the number of Americans infected with multidrug-resistant Salmonella via contaminated food is on the rise, increasing from 9 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in 2015, and poultry is a primary source of these infections.18
Skip the CAFO Chicken, Choose Pastured Chicken and Eggs Instead
With concerns of contamination and recalls rampant, I recommend skipping CAFO chicken in favor of pasture raised chicken from a local grass fed farmer.
Some farmers are taking it to the next level by using poultry-centered regenerative agriculture, in which tall grasses and trees protect the birds from predators instead of cages — in addition to optimizing soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface and being a high-value perennial crop.
Opposite of CAFOs, these poultry-centered systems are regenerating the land instead of destroying it, raising chickens humanely instead of cruelly and producing nutritionally superior, not inferior, food. Another alternative, particularly if you can’t find pastured chicken, is skipping chicken entirely and choosing organic, pastured eggs instead.
Whole eggs are an excellent source of protein, healthy fats (omega-3) and antioxidants, including choline, along with vitamins A, D, E and K. Pastured eggs can provide you with much of the nutrition that CAFO chickens cannot, without the risks of contamination.
The gold standard would be eating eggs from your own backyard chickens, but a competitive runner-up is organic, pastured eggs from a local farmers market or food co-op. If you live in even a semi-rural area, you’re also likely to signs around advertising farm-fresh eggs. Stop by and ask the farmer how the chickens are raised and if it’s on pasture, you’re in luck.
Above all else, avoid buying into the hype that the CAFO chicken sold in grocery stores and served in most restaurants is good for you; see it for what it really is: one of the riskiest food items out there in terms of contamination and the potential for foodborne illness.