Meat Products Barre VT
East Orange, VT
Waterbury Ctr, VT
Randolph Ctr, VT
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East Corinth, VT
Food as Medicine—Air-Chilled Chicken
By Kristin Bjornsen
Like 007, some people prefer their chicken chilled, not stirred. Indeed, they seem to be flocking to a new type of specialty poultry: air-chilled chickens, which producers say pack more flavor—and fewer pathogens—than conventionally treated chickens.
“Air chilled” refers to the method used to cool chickens just after slaughter to prevent bacterial growth. The standard method, used 99 percent of the time in the US, involves soaking the birds in vats of icy, chlorinated water for 20 to 65 minutes. Air-chilled chickens, in contrast, are hung on shackles that pass through cold chambers for several hours. Due, in part, to the longer cooling time, air-chilled chickens cost about twice as much as the standard variety costs.
Producers of air-chilled poultry, such as Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, Bell & Evans, and D’Artagnan, say their birds taste richer and more “chickeny” than their immersed counterparts, which absorb up to 12 percent of their body weight in water while in the cooling vats. To test the flavor, the Wall Street Journal conducted a blind taste-test comparing four air-chilled birds with two water-chilled. The two voted best tasting were air-chilled, but ironically, the lowest-ranking chicken was air-chilled as well.
Promoters also boast that air-chilled poultry harbors fewer pathogens than immersed ones. At first glance, a 2002 study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln supports this. The study found significantly fewer cases of salmonella contamination in air-chilled chickens than in immersed ones—a 19 percent contamination rate versus 25 percent. (Although those numbers sound alarming, the USDA actually allows 20 percent of birds from a slaughterhouse to test positive.) The difference in contamination rates stems, theoretically, from the use of the same liquid for multiple birds. A caveat exists, however: Even though a greater number of water-chilled birds test positive, each bird carries fewer bacterial cells, probably because the water dilutes the number of colonies.
What does this mean for chicken eaters? Well, if 50 in 100 water-chilled birds have bacterial concentrations of five to 10 colonies as opposed to one in 100 air-chilled birds having 1,000 colonies, “you may have more of a chance of getting sick if you get that one ‘lucky’ bird,” says Marcos Sánchez, PhD, the study’s lead researcher. In other words, “The health risks are about the same between immersed and air-chilled.”
But there’s one more possible problem with immersion. The chlorinated water may select for more resistant bacteria, allowing “super bugs” to pass through to the supermarket. Controlling for pathogens ends in the kitchen—always wash your hands after handling raw chicken and cook it thoroughly.
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