[SCMP Column] Superbugs Unplucked

November 18, 2017

Thanksgiving week gives us cause to think about chickens. Yes, turkeys too, but I want to think about chickens, and the sad but awesome role they play - in feeding a planet of more than seven billion people, in ridiculous trade politics, and in creating a clear and present human danger because of their gigantic forced appetite for antibiotics.

Awesome because the 60 billion chickens now slaughtered every year to feed us provide more meat for human consumption than any other animal except pigs. And that is not counting the 380bn eggs they lay.

Sad, because the nasty, brutish and short life of this bird – more an industrial commodity than an animal – is just 42 days. That is, long enough to be fattened to an average of 2.5kg.

Given that chickens have been pecking around peoples’ back yards all over the world for literally thousands of years, what surprises me most about their story is the extreme modesty of their culinary contribution until so very recently. Just 120 years ago they were consumed rarely – too scrawny and fiddly – more valued for their eggs, for their sometimes spectacular plumage, and their bloody belligerence in cock pits around the world.

The tipping point seems to have been around the first world war, when “real” meat – beef, lamb and pork – was being fed to soldiers fighting in the trenches. This led to significant meat shortages for families left back home, and no choice but to resort to chicken meat.

The same occurred again into the second world war, by which time food technologies had revolutionised the industry. Back in 1880 the world raised about 100m chickens for meat. Today worldwide production has soared to 60bn a year today. When America’s poultry farmers in 1946 held their now-famous nationwide “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest, the average weight of a chicken at slaughter was little more than 1.5kg – and it took 86 days to get there, according to Maryn McKenna, author of a fascinating new book, Big Chicken.

What happened to enable farmers today to more than double their weight, and rush them to slaughter in half the time, is a miracle of farm science, creating what the Smithsonian Museum website describes as “an intriguingly blank canvas for the flavour palate of almost any cuisine.”

But their story provides an uncomfortable warning on the price we must now pay to keep the world’s burgeoning population adequately fed – and the precariousness of the food security we strive to provide worldwide. With some smart cross-breeding and surprisingly little reliance on genetic tweaking, the main impetus from scrawny to plump and succulent has come from vitamins and antibiotics – to the point that farm animals today consume around 80 per cent of all antibiotics produced.

Back in the 1950s the US farmers’ love affair with antibiotics blossomed so strong that there was for a short period a fad of “acronisation”: poultry farmers found that if they dunked dead chickens in an antibiotic solution, the surface film immunised the chicken from microbes for up to a month – providing a seductively long shelf life. The practice soon and suddenly stopped when the chicken dippers began to get skin infections. Food marketers then shifted to boast that their chickens were “non-acronised”.

The strange thing is that chickens are fed the antibiotics not because they are sick – though for sure they ought to be in the dreadful teeming batteries they call home for their short lives – but because the antibiotics make them pack on the pounds faster. And here arises our human health crisis, because generations of superbugs have now emerged in chicken farms that have built resistance to just about every antibiotic thrown at them. As minority consumers of antibiotics, we humans now find they don’t work on the bacteria that make us sick.

This explains the recent angst-attack here in Hong Kong over the love affair local people – and their doctors – have with antibiotics, and the announcement of a five-year plan to contain the threat from bugs that can shrug off all the antibiotics we throw at them. As Maryn McKenna notes: “These are the unintended consequences of the post-World War II drive to feed the world inexpensively by producing meat as quickly as possible – and how those good intentions created a worldwide epidemic of drug-resistant infections that have defeated almost every antibiotic we have.”

Of course, the problem does not sit exclusively with chickens. It is just that chickens is where the scale is – accounting today for almost a third of all meat production, second only to pork. And while back in 1980 most chickens were bought and roasted whole – as so many will be gobbled up with turkeys on Thanksgiving night – by today, almost all chicken meat is served up in one processed form or another – from chicken breasts and chicken thighs to infamous chicken nuggets.

As a sidebar on turkeys – which today still seem to have a slightly more dignified life than chickens – food science magic has been brought to bear to make them so huge, with so much breast meat, that males are no longer able to mate. All turkey hens have to be artificially inseminated. Think on that as 46m of them are carved on Thanksgiving tables this week.

As a final indignity for the humble chicken there is the not-so-small matter of chickens’ feet. The old joke asks why Chinese people eat 18bn chicken feet every year. The answer: because US farmers only raise 9bn chickens. But ridiculous trade politics has slammed a brake on this lucrative US export, as the Chinese government has, in retaliation for Barak Obama’s duties on Chinese tyre exports, imposed huge countervailing duties on chickens’ feet, claiming US farmers sell them at below cost.

I don’t think chickens’ feet were on Trump’s trade negotiation menu during his recent state visit to Beijing, and I am absolutely certain they were not on any menu at any of his sumptuous banquets, but they were on trade negotiators’ minds for sure.
So the humble chicken, which has been clucking around our back yards for millennia, has never been as important in our lives as it is today. As you carve those antibiotic-infused chicken and turkey breasts on Thanksgiving night, give a thought to the debt we owe them, and the dangers we have created for ourselves in engineering food this way.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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