April 26, 2012

Colbert Talks Chicken Feed

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Stephen Colbert with a Xanax nugget

Last week, Stephen Colbert used his signature blend of mock-outrage and wit on a topic very familiar to those of us here at the CLF.

In a segment called “Thought For Food,” Colbert commented on news reports that cited a recently published CLF study that found antibiotics (some of which have been banned for use in poultry), caffeine, acetaminophen, antidepressants and antihistamines in feather meal, a poultry by-product made from ground up poultry feathers and then incorporated into animal feed and used as a fertilizer.

CLF researchers Dave Love and Keeve Nachman, along with CLF doctoral fellow Meghan Davis and Rolf Halden of Arizona State University, authored the study that hit the news last week—perhaps most notably in the New York Times and on CNN.

Importantly, this study highlights that feather meal may be a pathway by which antibiotics and personal care products reenter the food supply. It was the first study detecting antibiotic residues in commercially available feather meal. However, what this study cannot comment on is what’s in the chicken meat you find at the grocery store.  That’s a topic for future research.

Despite this distinction between what’s in the feather meal versus the chicken meat itself, Colbert’s take on the story involved him eating from an oversized pill dispenser filled with  “Xanax nuggets—the strongest dark meat you can get without a prescription,” and “blazing buffalo Benadryl” wings.

While Colbert’s segment was obviously entertainment—and he did quite the amusing job—we decided to debunk a couple of potential misconceptions and affirm what he got right.

Colbert: “I couldn’t be happier, I assume because my chicken contains a fair amount of Prozac.”

CLF: We will take it on good faith that Stephen Colbert is accurately reporting on his mood. However, the statement about his chicken containing Prozac has not been demonstrated by our study.  We did find fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, in the two feather meal samples from China, but not in the samples from the U.S.  Further, as noted above, we didn’t test chicken meat itself in this study.

Colbert: “I don’t know why chickens are anxious about living in a shoebox-sized cage with thousands of their closest friends, eating all day and wallowing in their own filth.”

CLF: Actually, Colbert is right about chickens living in tiny cages in their own filth.  An industrial chicken house may contain up to 100,000 chickens.  Producers use antibiotics to make the birds grow faster and keep them from getting sick in crowded, disease-ridden environments.  Reducing the overuse of important antibiotics would mean the industry would have to reduce the density of their production methods—something they are none too keen on doing.

So, perhaps when CLF’s next study comes out, Mr. Colbert will invite the researchers on his show to get the facts straight from the horse’s mouth—but then again, the truth might not be nearly as funny.

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