Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

“Big Chicken” book raises big problems

A picture of the Cover of Maryn McKenna's book entitled, "Big Chicken".

Factory farming, whether raising chicken or cattle or even fish, turns out to have unintended consequences.
Author Maryn McKenna will talk about these consequences and her book, “Big Chicken,” at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at the ImpactHub in Seattle. She’s likely to touch on the fish farm controversies of the Northwest, because cramming salmon into pens is related to cramming chickens into pens. The cramming itself leads to problems.
She plumbs the history of chicken farming in her book, but in service to a much bigger story. She traces the growing scientific understanding that antibiotic use in farming led to antibiotic resistance in the dangerous bacteria that now haunt hospitals and nursing homes, threatening human lives. Feeding the drugs to chickens helped carry those “resistant” bacteria, the ones who survived the antibiotics, to become widespread in our communities.
She asks readers to widen their lens even more, and see this development as part of what is called “One Health.” One Health integrates veterinary and medical research to try to recognize the whole community is connected to the health of all parts. Seattle has a place dedicated to this paradigm, the Center for One Health Research at the University of Washington.
Chicken farmers began giving antibiotics to their fowl in the late 1940s, but not because of sick chickens, rather because of the accidental discovery that antibiotics helped fatten the birds. What McKenna vividly illustrates is how consumer desires and marketing led to cramming birds into smaller and smaller living spaces. Smaller living spaces required different practices for raising the birds in a shorter time to a larger size. This may sound familiar to those who are worried about fish getting crammed into pens.
“Whenever you take a creature that is evolved to range free and try to raise them in a smaller and smaller space, it requires artificial means to make that happen,” McKenna said in a phone interview.
Today, the World Health Organization has declared this sort of “resistance” as one of the biggest threats to global health. The overuse of antibiotics speeds up the process of resistance.. If this threat continues, it could create a nightmarish return to people dying of what were once ordinary infections. One big example of this is known as MRSA, for methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Seattle played a role in the early understanding of how this threat might hurt people.
It was a Seattle scientist, Reimert Ravenholt, who discovered an outbreak of a skin infection among workers at a chicken slaughterhouse in the 1950s. Ravenholt later published in 1961 the first description of antibiotic resistance as a result of factory use. Here is part of how the book explains his discovery:
“Ravenholt could not prove in a lab that the antibiotic doses, the chicken’s lesions, the antibiotic soaks, and the workers’ health problems were linked. But he was confident that what happened was this: Drugs in the feed had affected bacteria in the birds, habituating them to antibiotics, and the low dose of the same antibiotics in the chilling bath had eliminated all the bacteria except for those that had become resistant. Those had survived to infect the workers who were plunging their arms and hands in the contaminated water.”
In the Northwest, we have fish crowded into pens, and there are some parallels where growing protein of any kind – fish, meat or chicken – may threaten human health in some way. Chickens are not routinely given antibiotics for growth anymore in the U.S. But beef and pork still get these doses. It is estimated that 70 percent of all the antibiotics on earth may be given to animals, not people.
Salmon farms in the U.S., like the controversial ones that collapsed and released Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound ecosystem in August, don’t routinely use antibiotics as growth promoters. But a study in 2014 showed that farmed-salmon sold in US markets did have traces of antibiotics. Salmon raised in net pens are also crowded, just like land-based protein sources
European countries have regulated antibiotic use much more than the United States. In the U.S., it was consumer demand that prompted Perdue Farms, Inc, the fourth largest producer, to announce in 2014 that they would not use growth-promoting antibiotics. McKenna believes that public awareness about protein production, including fish, is the path forward to reducing the threat of antibiotic resistance and other unintended consequences.
She ends her book with a visit to a family farm, where every aspect of raising chickens is in stark contrast to a factory. She calls those intentional measures the hallmarks that should change the way the world raises protein.

One Response

  1. This idea of One Health is such an interesting one. And I love that McKenna is drawing parallels between factory farming practices of chicken and salmon. Thanks for the post!

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