Antibiotics in chicken a cause for concern? And five other questions about poultry today

There are many chicken products today, but the labels can often be misleading. The programme Talking Point investigates the meaty issues here, like how important it is to go antibiotic-free.

SINGAPORE: Earlier this year, Benjamin Ang started rearing his own chickens at a community space on Henderson Road; he wanted fresh eggs and premium chickens bred in what he feels are humane conditions.

Valued for their superior meat, the French chickens he rears — poulet de Bresse — are among the world’s most expensive chickens.

Concern over antibiotic resistance may see consumers and farmers turn to other ways of rearing fowl.

A frozen Bresse costs between S$50 and S$70 each, compared with about S$4 for a regular frozen grill chicken that one can find at a supermarket.

“(Bresse) chicken has been described as the queen of poultry and the poultry for kings. They’ve been bred specifically for their flavour and texture of the meat,” said Ang.

“If you’re looking at the quality of the meat or the experience of something different, then I’d say it’s definitely worthwhile.”

Benjamin Ang showing Talking Point host Steven Chia a Bresse rooster.

Bresse chickens command premium prices as they require more personal space, and a third of their diet consists of naturally foraged earthworms, insects and grass.

These days, chickens come with many labels, such as corn-fed, free-range and organic, with each variety promising to be environmentally friendlier, healthier and tastier than your average chicken.

But all these labels may lead you to wonder what “antibiotic-free” or “probiotics-fed” really means. And how do these varieties affect the meat’s nutritional value? The programme Talking Point finds out six things you should know when buying chicken.

1. WHAT DO THE LABELS MEAN?

100 per cent organic: To be certified, these poultry must be reared with no antibiotics, provided with 100 per cent organic feed and given access to the outdoors.

For example, Ryan’s Grocery co-founder Wendy Foo said the organic chickens it sells are from Australia, and when they are sick, essential oils are administered to them, instead of antibiotics.

Antibiotic residue-free: Antibiotics have been administered to these chickens but are removed from their feed a few days before they are slaughtered, so that there is no residue left in the meat when it is processed.

Probiotics-fed: Instead of antibiotic growth promoters, said Kee Song Food Corporation (Singapore) head of business development James Sim, these chickens are fed with probiotics.

In the case of the company’s flagship product, Lacto Chicken, they are fed on lactobacillus to enhance their immune system.

Free-range: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) generally permits this term to be used if the chickens have access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day.

The USDA has no provision, however, for the duration spent outside or the amount of space provided.

As for kampung chickens, they are a breed of chickens, Foo points out. Originally free-range, they are now highly likely to be farmed in cages.

Factory-farmed: Although not labelled as such, these are the most common chickens sold in supermarkets. Known as broilers, they are bred for meat production.

Kept in cages where the living conditions are typically “not as hygienic”, they are fed with antibiotics “so that they stay healthy”, said Foo.

A vendor picks up a broiler chicken from a cage at the Mbare Market in Harare. (FIle photo: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana)

2. WILL THE ANTIBIOTICS HARM ME?

Antibiotics are used globally by the livestock industry to prevent and treat infectious bacterial diseases, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said on its website.

Nonetheless, poultry treated with antibiotics “may not be processed for food until a specified withdrawal period has been observed to allow antibiotic residues to be sufficiently cleared from the system”.

The SFA prescribes maximum residue levels (MRLs) “so that we know the chicken we buy is safe for consumption”, said William Chen, the director of Nanyang Technological University’s food science and technology programme.

There is a strict inspection scheme to ensure that drug residues do not exceed those levels, the professor added.

Prof William Chen (right) is a leading authority on emerging food technology and safety in Singapore.

Just last month, the SFA suspended the import of live chickens from a farm in Malaysia after detecting drug residues exceeding MRLs in samples collected from a consignment of the farm’s chickens.

All imported and local food products are subject to regular inspections and sampling, including for harmful bacteria.

The chances of antibiotic-resistant bacteria going into chicken flesh are also “very low”, as these bacteria are typically found in the bird’s digestive system, said Chen.

“When we properly cook the chicken, all the bacteria — whether they’re antibiotic-resistant or not — will be killed off. So consumers shouldn’t be overly worried about eating chicken bought from the supermarket or wet market.”

Safe for consumption.

3. HOW DOES THE CHICKEN’S DIET AFFECT ITS MEAT?

The texture of the meat depends on the feed, said Foo. For example, meat from chickens fed with bromelain, a digestive enzyme extracted from pineapples, is leaner and firmer as well as lower in fat and cholesterol, she cited.

What an animal eats has an effect on its fat. “That’s where you’re getting a lot of flavour from,” Annie King, from the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, told the magazine Popular Science.

But not all flavours the animal eats will be carried over into the meat, as some compounds will be metabolised before they make it to the fat, the magazine reported.

4. DOES THE FEED AFFECT THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE?

Regardless of what the chickens eat, the formulation of the feed is such that it provides certain amounts of nutrition.

Farmers would calculate the proportions of raw materials to provide, say, the energy levels the chickens “require for their functional maintenance”, said poultry health expert Lynn Tan.

Some chickens are fed with grains such as brown rice or quinoa, as these ingredients’ “purported health benefits” are well known to consumers.

“This could trigger a positive psychological effect in the consumer,” said the veterinary practitioner. “But in actual fact, it doesn’t increase the fibre content of chicken meat … It’s just a marketing aspect of chicken meat.”

She added that she “wouldn’t pay that much more” for chickens fed on brown rice, corn and soya, because “ultimately, the nutritional formulation will be the same as a typical commercially-fed chicken”.

Chia with Dr Lynn Tan, who has spent more than 12 years assisting poultry farms.

5. WHY ARE PREMIUM CHICKENS SO COSTLY?

A bromelain-fed chicken costs about S$19 per kilogramme, while a cage-free corn-fed and soya-fed chicken costs about S$23/kg. A 100 per cent free-roaming, organic chicken costs S$42/kg.

They cost a premium because antibiotic growth promoters are usually not administered to them, so they take longer to reach the ideal size for slaughter.

For example, it takes at least 56 days for a free-range chicken and 81 days for an organic one, compared to 40-odd days for a broiler chicken.

Then there is the amount of space given. Organic chickens get the most space, at about 10 chickens per square metre; free-range chickens at about 12 chickens per sq m; and conventional broilers at about 17 chickens per sq m.

Some premium chickens are also fed with slightly more premium feeds, like corn, soya, organic feed, brown rice and probiotics.

6. WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF POULTRY FARMING?

There is a growing number of poultry farmers in Singapore, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries who are switching to farming without the use of antibiotic growth promoters, and on a larger scale, said Sim.

Kee Song Food Corporation’s farm in Yong Peng, Malaysia, where the chickens get to listen to Mozart. (Source: Kee Song Food Corporation)

This is to give consumers a healthier choice “in terms of good-quality protein”.

His chickens even roam in barns with piped music, namely classical music.

“It’s a way to promote a calmer and … less stressful environment. If they don’t feel so much stress, they grow up healthier and their meat is a bit tenderer,” he said.

CNA

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