Pastured Poultry Week returns to Charleston next month, with 15 local restaurants featuring birds raised out-of-doors on their menus.
Sponsoring organization Compassion in World Farming says "pastured chicken is better for the environment, animal welfare and human health - not to mention your taste buds." But while there's general consensus on the first two points, the latter two claims have lately been called into question, a development which may underscore the need for more infrastructure supporting small farms.
Joel Salatin of Virginia's Polyface Farm - best known outside of small-ag circles for his starring role in Michael Pollan's influential "The Omnivore Dilemma" - was instrumental in pushing for more farmers to raise their flocks in "eggmobiles," or mobile laying houses. His 1996 book, "Pastured Poultry Profit$" outlined exactly how to allow birds to roam in accordance with their natural instincts.
"Potential for extra farm income," is cited by the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems as one of the leading reasons to pasture poultry; other benefits include low-capital investment; enhanced soil fertility and the possibility of involving an entire family in the chickens' care. Pastured poultry has also been celebrated for not causing the water and air pollution problems associated with industrial chicken farms.
As far as eaters are concerned, Atlanta chef Shaun Doty, a founder of Georgians for Pastured Poultry, told Wired.com that the active chickens are "athletes." "And that means the meat is very firm, and the bones are strong," he continued. "They have huge, old-fashioned taste."
But the University of Wisconsin didn't find any evidence that pastured chickens -- which take twice as long to reach butchering size as their cooped-up counterparts -- are reliably more delicious. According to its report, "University taste and nutritional tests did not detect any differences between pastured poultry and conventionally-raised poultry." (Many of the event's participating chefs might disagree.)
The same 1999 study revealed pastured poultry farmers believed "the biggest obstacle to making pastured poultry work is the processing -- both the availability of licensed processors and the quality of the processing."
Their fears may have been prescient, since a pair of 2013 studies established that pastured birds are afflicted with at least as much salmonella and campylobacter as birds raised indoors.
"Depending on how the pastured bird was processed - a nice word for slaughtered - salmonella was present in alarming amounts," Modern Farmer reported.
A USDA-funded study showed 43 percent of pastured chickens tested positive for salmonella, while 82 percent tested positive for campylobacter. The figures for pastured chickens processed on-the-farm were even more striking, with 89 percent of the sample testing positive for salmonella, and 70 percent of them testing positive for campylobacter.
Another study, conducted by Penn State researchers, also found increased levels of the harmful bacteria in pastured chickens sold at farmers markets. Scientists theorize the threat may result from small processors' limited use of antimicrobials, and the chickens' contact with wild birds and rats.
"We tell our customers to treat [pastured poultry] like it's chicken," American Pastured Poultry Producers Association president Mike Badger told Modern Farmer in response to the investigations. "Don't eat it raw. Assume it has salmonella and cook it thoroughly. That's what the label says."
Cooked chicken is so safe that after testing, the Penn State researchers prepared the salmonella-positive samples and ate them. In other words, diners entrusting their chicken handling to professionals (i.e. restaurant chefs) shouldn't be unduly worried.
Restaurants participating in the third annual Pastured Poultry Week, July 7-13, include FIG, SNOB, Husk, Butcher & Bee, Fish, Xiao Bao Biscuit and the Indigo Road Group restaurants. For more information, visit ciwf.com.