Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chefs, Wake up! They are trying to fool you.

This week, The New York Times published a story by Jennifer Steinhauer entitled “In Los Angeles, Jidori Chicken Is the New Kid in the Coop”.  In the article she says “It’s a hyper-local specialty item, basic but beloved for its unrivaled freshness.”

First, Jidori Chicken is a trademark owned by a Los Angles slaughter house, Mao Foods, Inc.  It is not a breed a chicken, it is not a “hyper-local specialty item”, it is a conventional commercial chicken raised in traditional large commercial chicken houses using an unsustainable bird from Hubbard genetics just like Tyson and Perdue chickens and essentially every other chicken in American restaurants and grocery stores.

Obviously, consumers, reporters and chefs have been fooled by many marketing strategies of the commercial poultry industry.  Here are just a few examples to watch out for.

“No Growth Hormones or Steroids”.  Mao Foods, Inc.’s website,, uses this claim as have many larger commercial poultry companies.  The reality is that the USDA has never allowed growth hormones or steroids to be administered to poultry (or pork) in the United States.  In fact, the USDA has a regulation that if a producer puts that claim on a label it must be followed by the phrase “Federal regulations do not allow growth hormones or steroids to be administered to poultry”. 

So why make the claim? For two reasons; 1) consumers are concerned about growth hormones and steroids that are administered to beef cattle and lambs so they think that stating that they are not administered to poultry will make their product appear “special”, and 2) because the chickens are fed antibiotics every day of their life and they know that some chefs and consumers will confuse the two issues and again assume that their product is “special”.  And it worked.  It fooled the NY Times who apparently did not do their fact checking.

Fortunately for consumers, the Federal Trade Commission and the USDA have forced Tyson to stop using that claim, in 2001, as it was misleading and deceptive.  Unfortunately that has not stopped Jidori Chicken and Mao Foods, Inc., from using the same deceptive claim.

“Cage Free”.  No commercial meat chickens are raised in cages. That is an egg-laying issue (and a different type of bird) and fortunately high animal welfare labels like Animal Welfare Approved are providing independent third party verification that laying chickens are not kept in cages, as well.  But the ills of commercial chicken are far greater.  As depicted in the movie, Food, Inc., commercial chickens are raised in large chicken houses and they grow so fast and become so fat that they will generally die at about 45 days of age from organ failure or from broken legs that were unable to support their unnatural weight.  So, making the claim that a meat chicken is raised “cage free” is stating the obvious in hopes that a chef or a consumer is fooled into thinking that their product is “special”.

“Free Range”.  The USDA only requires that a door be open in a chicken house for 51% of the day for the chicken to be labeled “Free Range”.  No chicken actually has to go out the door and in large commercial poultry houses, the chickens are too fat and too weak to forage in a pasture.  US Food Services has a private label chicken called Ashley Farms and they state their chicken is “Better than Free Range”.  Why, because “ they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors. There is never any risk of exposure to disease, never any stress caused by exposure to the elements, and never any chance the chickens will eat or drink something they should not.”  Yes, they actually say that.

They only way a chef can be certain the chicken, duck or turkey they buy is free-range is to visit the farm and see the birds foraging on pastures.  There is no way to ever believe the claim of “Free Range” on the label.

“Organic”.  If the product is organic, the USDA Inspection label will have the USDA Organic logo printed on it.  If it is not on the label, it is not organic.  If a farmer argues the point, ask to see their organic certification and ask for it to be put on the label.  Even then, caution is necessary as recently Whole Foods was caught using the USDA Organic Label on product imported from China that had never been certified (  Once again, the owner of Mao Foods made the claim that their chickens were organic and the NY Times did not fact check - it is becoming ever so easy to fool the culinary public.

”Sustainable”.  This word is used often, especially by back-yard farmers with a few truly free-range birds.  The problem is that sustainable means that the birds can pro-create to sustain multiple generations.  With the exception of standard bred poultry or heritage poultry, all other birds come from hatcheries where the genetics of the birds are owned by a company named Hubbard.  Hubbard is to poultry what Monsanto is to corn. 

Hubbard has created hybrid meat chicken, generally a Cornish cross bird, which is unable to naturally mate and the next generation of birds must be purchased again from Hubbard or one of the hatcheries that buys the birds or eggs from Hubbard. 

Farmers who have birds that can have sex, produce fertile eggs and actually have babies born on the farm, like every other farm animal in America, are the only sustainable poultry farmers.  So, Chefs, ask your poultry farmer “were the babies born on the farm and do you breed your own meat chickens?”  If the answer is yes, they are sustainable.  If the answer is no, you might as well buy a Tyson or Perdue chicken from Walmart.  It is the same bird.

Unfortunately, the best way to ensure that you are not being taken by misleading or deceptive claims is to “see where your food comes from”.  That is not always easy.  An alternative is to rely on independent third party verification, such as Animal Welfare Approved, that requires that poultry is truly “free range”, slow-growing, not fed antibiotics, and humanely slaughtered as well.

With the premium chefs are willing to pay for “hyper-local specialty items” the enticement to make spectacular claims is ever increasing.  Slaughter facilities like Mao Foods, Inc., that are buying birds from commercial producers are creating creative labels to market the product as their own.  Illegal, no.  Deceptive, yes.  Get to know your farmer – and the butchers at local slaughter houses.  They are both important in creating great food – but if you want to know where your food comes from, you must visit a farm.