99% of chicken meat sold in the United States has been “cleaned” in a chlorine bath before it gets to your plate. At Grass Roots — we never process your meat this way. There are many, many reasons we use dramatically higher standards in bringing our pasture-raised meats from our farm to your table. In this post, we’re going to cover:
- Why meat needs to be cleaned in the first place
- Why our methods ensure clean meat, and keeps your family safe
- Some facts that will make you want to avoid grocery store chicken forever
First, some facts:
Ever wondered what that liquid is inside a typical pack of grocery store chicken? It’s chlorine water—also known as “fecal soup.” The meat absorbs this water during the 60+ minute chlorine bath used to “clean” and chill conventional chicken meat, and the water itself contains a lot of… yep, poop. We have a whole post about poop if you’re interested.
Listeria and salmonella remain active after chlorine baths, demonstrated in a recent study published in mBio. Chlorine baths merely makes it impossible to culture these pathogens in the lab, giving the false impression that the process is effective.
The United States has 10x the incidence of food borne illness compared to the United Kingdom, per capita.
It doesn’t please us one bit to share these disturbing facts about the conventional poultry system with you. But learning about where your food comes from and making different choices about the meat you eat comes with more than a few uncomfortable truths.
Why does meat need to be “cleaned?”
Chickens are living, breathing animals. When they are raised in crowded, dirty conditions—like conventional “chicken houses” with 100,000 birds crammed into a tight space—they end up with lots of feces and dirt on their bodies. They also frequently get sick and require drugs to stay alive.
What happens when these chickens are harvested at the rate of 140 birds per minute in factory slaughterhouses? It’s no surprise: their meat gets contaminated from the filth and feces of their living conditions, and from sloppy harvesting practices. The industry is even pushing to speed up their processing lines to 170 birds per minute — which will only increase errors and fecal contamination.
In the United States, the factory farm industry’s answer to “clean meat” has been to dunk the meat in a chlorine bath at the end of the process, and call it a day. If your dinner fell on the ground and got dirt on it, would you scrape it up, dunk it in a chlorine bath, and proceed to eat it? We wouldn’t either. But this is essentially how conventional meat is delivered to grocery stores.
Chlorine baths serve two purposes in factory slaughterhouses: to “clean” the meat, and to chill the meat. The problem with this method is that a) it doesn’t actually clean the meat and b) the meat absorbs the chlorine bath water. Critics of the chlorine bath process say that producers actually want the meat to absorb as much fluid as possible, because the meat is sold by weight. If you can earn the same dollar selling fecal soup water that you can selling chicken meat, it’s in your interest to ensure as much fecal soup gets into your “product” as possible. Gross.
The Grass Roots Way
Let’s compare factory farm norms to our methods of raising and processing poultry at Grass Roots. First of all: we don’t let our birds get dirty in the first place. This is the most important difference in our meat. When birds are raised in their natural habitat (pasture!), are moved to fresh grass every single day (via mobile chicken schooners), can participate in their natural behaviors (preening, cleaning), and reside in manageable micro-broods of 500 birds each—they simply aren’t dirty when they come in to be harvested. Starting out with clean birds is the best way to produce clean meat.
When it comes to harvesting and cleaning our chicken meat, we have a much more effective and gentle process than crude chlorine baths. At the end of the harvesting process, each chicken goes through a 20-second “dip” in an organic hydrogen peroxide and vinegar wash. We then air-chill our meat in a clean refrigerated room. After the internal temperature of the meat has reached below 38 degrees Fahrenheit, we repeat the 20-second dip as a final measure. Our methods are fully supported by the USDA and are proven effective to remove pathogenic bacteria from meat. Luckily, our meat doesn’t have much to begin with.
You’ll notice that Grass Roots’ chicken packages aren’t swimming in fluid like those at the grocery store. Now you know why! We also never do another common practice in conventional meat industry: injecting the meat with saline water. The mega poultry industry calls this an “enhanced’ product, and it’s meant to generate “flavor” in an otherwise flavorless product. Our birds, on the other hand, have earned hundreds of enthusiastic emails from customers who are floored by the flavor and texture. One customer even shared, “I didn’t realize chicken had a flavor—until I ate Grass Roots chicken.”
The Proof is in the Laboratory Tests
Now is a great time to share a mind-blowing story from the early days of Grass Roots. Back when we decided to build and operate our own poultry processing facility (one of only 16 small independent meat processors in the nation), we needed to meet all the USDA requirements. A critical step was to prove that the meat at the end of our harvesting process was cleaner than the birds that started at the beginning of the process. The first time we tried to achieve this step, we failed. The second time, we failed. Each time we tried, we could not show a reduction in the bacteria levels on our finished product, as required.
When we got to the root of the problem, it was laughable: our birds had no bacteria on them to begin with. Our birds were naturally so clean, we could not prove a reduction in bacteria as they moved through each stage of harvesting. It was a good problem to have, but it was still a problem (and a major one, at that). Without a way to prove that our system worked (aka without detectable levels of bacteria at the beginning of our process), we couldn’t open our doors.
Andy Shaw, our Head of Operations, came up with a genius idea to solve to this problem. He went out and purchased a few conventionally-raised chickens that grew up in typical factory farm conditions: indoors, crowded, dirty. We processed these chickens via our system, and voila! — we proved the required reduction in bacteria levels. Our pasture-raised birds are so clean we had to buy conventional (dirty) birds to meet our USDA requirements.
It’s an absurd reality. The chicken meat you see on grocery store shelves is supposed to be clean and safe to consume, but it’s no secret that this meat (whether it’s conventional, organic or free range) is swimming in salmonella, campylobacter and listeria. The only way to kill these pathogens is to fully cook the meat at high heat. But unfortunately the raw meat often contaminates kitchens, getting on countertops, cutting boards, sinks, knives, and even making its way onto other foods being prepared at home. The only way to truly protect your family is to buy truly clean, trustworthy meat (like ours!), that is clean because of how it was raised, not because of how it was sanitized after harvest.
What do you think?
This post presents many new concepts and facts about poultry processing, and it’s only a fraction of the information we will continue to share about our practices. If you have more questions, we’d love to hear them—you could inspire our next blog post. Paste a comment below and tell us what you think!
Thanks for joining us on our mission to bring the highest-quality meat from our farms to tables across America. We could not do it without you.