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.