Greater Greater Washington

Poorly researched Post article scares customers about chicken at farmers markets

My wife and I have been purchasing organic chicken from local farmers at a market for years. But this past weekend, those told us they have stopped selling chicken at DC farmers markets.


Photo by KimMcKelvey on Flickr.

The reason? A poorly researched Washington Post article that scared consumers from buying food at farmers markets. The headline: "DC farmers markets highlight an array of food safety issues."

The article's writers discovered small farms that had claimed the small farm exemption from USDA inspection and were then selling chicken across state lines at DC farmers markets. Virtually every farmer at a DC market crosses state lines, given the amount of agricultural land in DC.

While the writers cite USDA rules that don't allow small farms claiming the exemption to sell chicken across state lines, they overlook the small detail that Congress instructed the USDA in 2008 to end this rule and allow state-inspected chicken to be sold across state lines. The USDA is only now getting around to implementing that rule change.

But the writers went much further than exposing violations of chicken transport rules. A lab paid by the writers found salmonella in chicken from one of the vendors. This is not surprising, as salmonella is not uncommon in chicken. That's why you're not supposed to eat raw chicken.

The article somehow reached the dramatic conclusion, however, that this "illustrates the danger for consumers who think they can find refuge in markets selling food grown locally." An epidemiologist is then quoted saying, "there's no inherent reason why large production is, on balance, more dangerous than a small family farm".

Towards the end of the article, the writers admit that the lab they paid found the same pathogens in chicken from grocery stores in DC as well as farmers markets, which "demonstrates how easy it is to find pathogensno matter which market or grocery store a consumer patronizes." That this undermines the article's premise doesn't seem to have occurred to its writers.

Instead, in the most irresponsible decision in the article, they name the farmers markets where pathogens were found in chickens but do not name the grocery stores where the same pathogens were found. Furthermore, the writers don't say how much bacteria was found on chickens at each location, how much is naturally occurring in the human gut and how much scientists say is necessary to make someone sick.

The writers apparently didn't ask anyone why they shop at farmers markets. They simply chalk it up to "a national craving for fresh food and the perception that locally grown food is healthier than food mass-produced by big agriculture and sold in grocery stores."

If they had interviewed a single farmers market customer or advocate for free-range, organic chicken (none are quoted in the article) they would have learned that most farmers market patrons are interested in things other than the size and location of the farms.

Consumers go to farmers markets because knowing who raises your food, under what conditions, is the best way to be confident in the safety of your food. Farmers who can tell you these things are likely to be from small, local farms, but that's not the point.

What conditions might farmers market customers want to know about? Chickens bred in factories owned by the largest chicken companies, Tysons and Perdue, are crammed into a space less than half-a-square-foot with thousands of other chickens. Even if they had room to move, they couldn't because they have been genetically modified to grow so much that their legs can't support their oversized bodies.

If those conditions sound like a breeding ground for disease, that's because they are. A University of Georgia study this year found that 28% of chickens in conventional chicken factories have salmonella, compared to 4% of organic chickens. This study wasn't cited in the Post article.

Chicken factories manage disease by giving antibiotics to their chickens, which of course makes it into the chickens served to customers such as children receiving public school lunches. As 80% of antibiotics in America are given to farm animals, this increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Millions of consumers are learning about these conditions every year, thanks in part to books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and to documentaries like Food Inc., whose devastating scene of a chicken factory is shown here.

Knowing whether the chicken one purchases was bred under these conditions is what drives customers to farmers markets, not the size or location of the farm.

This article wasn't even written by the Post's own, often high-quality investigative journalists. It came from journalism students at the University of Maryland who made it freely available for reprint. In this case, the article was reprinted word-for-word from the original without a single editorial modification.

Readers of the Post, like all Americans, are increasingly concerned about food safety. Poorly researched scare articles like this one only serve to undermine attempts to truly improve safety.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 

Comments

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Are DC farmers markets inspected by the DC Department of Health? Do sellers at the markets pay sales taxes and charge for the bag tax?

by Fritz on Aug 4, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

One of the farmers I buy from regularly told me last week as a result of the Post article, another journalist is doing an article following the chicken this particular farmer raises from egg to table. Hopefully it will present a more complete and accurate picture of poultry available at the farmers market.

by Nicole on Aug 4, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

Ken, it seems as if you're suggesting that the article wasn't an example of balanced reporting.

:)

by HogWash on Aug 4, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

Great article, thanks a thorough analysis of the shortcomings. @Nicole, I'm glad to here that a more complete article is forthcoming.

@Fritz The farmers market near me is run by freshfarmmarkets, who have there regulations at:
http://freshfarmmarkets.org/pdfs/2011_rules_and_regulations.pdf They are very clear that insurance, inspections and proper taxation are a neccessity at the market, though the actual details of that rest on the seller.

A city paper did mention disgust that plastic bags are not taxed at farmers markets (though it is another article that is writen to excite a certain emotion). In reality, though, I largely see this as a moot point since an overwhelming majority of the people I see there are using replacable bags except for meats and whatnot. In the city code, I don't see anything specific at farmers markets, except for the excemption of bulk item bags. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/01/28/where-can-you-still-get-free-plastic-bags-why-at-the-farmers-market-of-course/

by Ryan D on Aug 4, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

Here here!

That article really upset me. It was incredibly one-sided and lacked basic facts to back up their points, as you noted. It was laughably bad, but seems to have had real consequences.

What a shame.

by 80p on Aug 4, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

Do you have a cite for the 80% of antibiotics are used in farms? I know there are estimates, but I'm not aware of any actual study of it.

by Chris on Aug 4, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

GGW complaining about an article not researched?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

by TGEOA on Aug 4, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

Immediately during and after a heat wave (especially earlier this week), signs in grocery stores read "Chicken 50%/75% OFF!" Why? Either they dropped because of the heat inside those chicken barns or they needed to be hauled out of there just before they did. Either way, give me a real farm raised chicken at 10 times the price.

by PB on Aug 4, 2011 4:44 pm • linkreport

The Post has zero cred when it comes to science and health. They have no one in that area knowledegable in that area. there are many problems with chicken and free ranch chicken often has more bacteria because the chickens are pecking the ground. Still, I'd never buy chicken from a farmstand vendor, because they don't have the climate control of a commercial vendor. I'd buy cheese or eggs which are less fragile, but not chicken or any other fresh meats.

by Rich on Aug 4, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

Interesting that the Post article was written by researcher from UMD and the University gets significant support from Purdue farms (Frank used to be on the Board of Regents). While there is still a debate going on in this country on the benefits of organic vs. non-organic, the Post article was definitely slated.

by JohnD on Aug 4, 2011 5:30 pm • linkreport

@JohnD

That's very interesting about Purdue. I agree that for a major newspaper the article was poorly done. Great job on this, Ken.

by Adam L on Aug 4, 2011 6:03 pm • linkreport

The best way to counter a biased, poorly researched article that is masquerading loosely connected ideas as a concrete set of facts? Write your OWN biased, poorly researched article that masquerades loosely connected ideas as a concrete set of facts.

I found the GGW article no more convincing than the wapo one. In fact, you use some of the same devices that you criticized in the washington post one (salmonella). As you note, thats why we dont eat raw chicken. You, too, missed any input from the field of science on the bacteria count in the gut and how much makes you sick. You dont back up your 80% antibiotic claim or why that would make super-bugs more likely, its not that I dont believe you, but if you're going to claim that mass produced chicken is going to lead to a MRSA apocalypse, it would be helpful on what authority you make this prediction.

by Ha on Aug 5, 2011 9:07 am • linkreport

@Chris - I didn't hear if they had an actual citation, but Morning Edition on WAMU just cited the same 80% number (well, they said 4x more in animals than humans). http://www.npr.org/2011/08/05/139014983/salmonella-strain-in-turkey-recall-resists-antibiotics

by Ryan D on Aug 5, 2011 9:50 am • linkreport

No problem here - I lurves me some salmon.

by Jeff on Aug 5, 2011 10:34 am • linkreport

And this is why I just don't eat chicken.

Off to procure the mercury-encrusted Tuna for lunch

by greent on Aug 5, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Thanks for the link, Ryan. Unfortunately, I don't think that that really proves anything. I don't think there's any merit to the 80% claim. Additionally, a significant percentage of the A/B that are used in agricultural production are NOT related to A/B for human use. Some animal diseases can't be caught by humans, and some antibiotics are effective in one species but not another.

by Chris on Aug 5, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

The 80% number comes from the FDA and is is measured by weight.

It doesn't measure per-capita or per-animal-weight consumption, which would be different, as there is more livestock than humans in America.

by Neil Flanagan on Aug 5, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

I have removed another Ronald comment that uses ad hominem attacks. Ronald, you've been warned repeatedly. Our comment section is not a place to attack people individually or the blog, but a place to discuss the issues being presented. If you have something to say about chicken and salmonella, whether you agree with the article or not, we welcome it. If you instead want to rant about the blog or people, please do so elsewhere.

Since I keep warning you and you keep paying no need, I will ban you if you continue to violate the rules.

by David Alpert on Aug 5, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

Excellent blog post and you are so right on about the Post article. Salmonella is a farm reality but poultry that is raised on a grass farm, in the open air, with no hormones, steroids or antibiotics and allowed to grow at a natural pace is more humane, healthier and less likely (not to say unlikely) to test for salmonella. I know the farm they picked on - everyone should take a Saturday or Sunday to go visit. It's a great education.

by widgaither on Aug 5, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

An 'inaccurate' WASHINGTON POST article? My goodness, that is the POST's standard and has been for more than 30 years!

by Pelham1861 on Aug 5, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

I love shopping farmers markets, but only for vegetables. Stop buying meat there years ago including fish and milk products. much to unsanitary for that.

by zacharias on Aug 6, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

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