May 7, 2009
I have to admit it took me by surprise to read that Oprah Winfrey teamed up with KFC Tuesday to help promote the fast food giant’s new Kentucky Grilled Chicken. The Oprah Winfrey Show is giving away meal coupons good for two pieces of grilled chicken, two individual sides and a biscuit. It’s all part of the show’s new “Harpo Hookups” promotion. It really was a great hookup; everyone in the U.S. who had access to a computer could print up enough coupons to feed a family of four for free. (If you didn’t download it last night, you’re too late) Before I go on, I want to make it clear that there are few people whom I respect more than Oprah Winfrey. She’s done more to help the world than I could in a dozen lifetimes. So, I believe that the reason for this giveaway, at least in Oprah’s view, is purely altruistic. I have no idea how many people will eat their first nutritious meal in quite a long time thanks to this generous promotion. At the very least it will help families save a few bucks in this difficult economy. However, knowing what I know about how most KFC chickens are raised, I wish Oprah could have found a more environmentally friendly way to “hookup” so many people with free food.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy grilled chicken; my beef with the whole thing is the way in which KFC’s chickens are grown. Back in 2004 the New York Times reported that KFC cooks up about 700 million chickens annually (my guess is the number is much higher now). The majority are grown in industrial style “broiler” houses that can hold tens of thousands of birds at a time. While working for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) I was given a tour of a typical broiler house in Arkansas. The metal building was the length of at least two football fields, dark, filled with dust and reeked of ammonia. The smell was so strong that we had to escort one of the Commissioners out of the building before he passed out. The floor was covered with wood shavings and other material that absorbed the birds’ manure and urine. The urine soaked “litter” often times burns the animals so badly that their feet develop sores. While at a processing plant I watched workers throw away the severed feet, which were headed for China, because the sore covered appendages were too unsightly to sell. I was told the low light helped to keep the birds calm. I also learned that the dim lights are never turned off. I suppose to stimulate 24-hour a day growth. Industrial chickens are designed to grow so fast that often times their legs can’t hold up their bodies and buckle under their own weight. Take a look at this trailer for a new movie entitled “Food Inc.” which depicts many of problems surrounding industrial poultry production, go in 34 seconds and look at a disturbing animation that shows how different industrial chickens are now compared to the chickens our grandparents ate almost 60 years ago. In short, industrially raised chickens live a brief and in my opinion miserable life, so companies like KFC can provide meat at deceiving low prices. (To be fair KFC does have an animal welfare program, however, many animal welfare experts believe it’s seriously lacking)
The environmental degradation due to the industrial system in which these birds are raised is equally disturbing. Much of the dead zones in U.S. waterways including the Chesapeake Bay are attributed to poultry and other agriculture related nutrient/waste runoff. I could go on about the use of antimicrobials and arsenicals used for growth promotion in industrial raised poultry and how both pose serious public health threats. I should also mention the huge amount of water and pesticides needed to grow the grain that the industrially raised birds are fed with. To learn more about why the price of industrial meat is deceiving low I suggest you read PCIFAP’s final report.
This is just a suggestion, but maybe the next “Harpo Hookup” can involve community supported agriculture, a network of sustainable restaurants, or even a fast food restaurant chain that is committed to sourcing sustainable and humanely raised food for its customers like a Chipotle.