Mim's Blog

Chickens, hormones and the end of an urban myth

Chickens, hormones and the end of an urban myth

I am guilty of perpetuating an urban myth — the one about chickens being force-fed hormones. For years I believed the story.

What else could explain chicken breasts the size of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s pectorals? Those chooks had to be on ‘roids.

My investigations led me to Lee Cook, a big-wig vet in the Department of Agriculture, based in Orange. Cook assured me Australian chickens have not been given hormones for at least 20 years, at which time there was a brief phase of dispensing DES (a synthetic hormone also given to pregnant women, which tragically later showed to contribute to cervical cancer in their daughters). Thankfully, DES was discontinued, and no other hormone has taken its place.

What is it then that makes today’s chicken so big? The answer, Mr Cook tells me, lies in growth-promoting antibiotics. Huh? It appears certain antibiotics including virginiamycin, zinc bacitracin and avolamycin are given to chooks to speed their growth. These antibiotics change the bacterial milieu in the fowl intestine. In some yet unknown way, this increases the weight of the bird. And a bird who puts on weight quicker can be slaughtered quicker. Good business for poultry farmers, bad business for chickens. However, I am assured the residue of antibiotics is minimal.

OK, so two urban myths exploded: Sunday’s roast chicken is not full of hormones, and has negligible antibiotic levels. However, battery chooks are fed colourings to make the egg yolk an orange colour, whereas the yolks of organic free-range eggs are yolky-orange because of the antioxidant-rich diet of grazing hens. Another reason to choose organic and free-range (organic implies free range, but also guarantees the chickens are fed a diet both pesticide- and chemical-free) is the question of animal welfare. Sure, both end up dead in your sandwich, but for some, the quality of an animals life before slaughter is important. Battery chickens are kept in confined quarters (one chicken to the size of an A4 piece of paper) with the lights on all the time to increase their egg-laying capacity, and they are usually de-beaked. Organic free-range hens are allowed to wander and peck at will.

Chicken is an excellent source of protein in the diet, and low fat if you leave off the skin. Whether you choose mass-produced or free-range, the good news is that no chicken in Australia contains hormones, so it is important to check your chook is homegrown, not imported.

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