Photo by KimMcKelvey on Flickr.

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. 

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 pathogens — no 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.

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.