That bucket of fried chicken may be finger-lickin', but it isn't necessarily good.
That's the message of "Big Chicken," a book that may make you put down that drumstick and reconsider your relationship with one of America's favorite foods.
In her 400-page investigation, National Geographic contributor Maryn McKenna casts an uneasy eye on chicken's connections to such things as global disease outbreaks. It's a cultural and social history of how chicken went from an item of limited appeal — people loved spring chickens, but they were not a big food crop — to a culinary juggernaut. Along the way, the chicken industry bred antibiotic resistance along with all of those birds.
McKenna's narrative could have been as dry as an overcooked chicken breast, but instead it's juicy and tense. She takes readers from the days before chickens were a mass-produced food to the creation of the antibiotics and preservatives that turned the birds into big business. Over the years, marketers trained Americans to enjoy chicken, and epidemiologists started to suspect in the 1950s that antibiotics-treated chickens were somehow connected to human outbreaks of staph.
Confirmation of that link was just the beginning, as the birds — and the antibiotics-resistant superbugs that grew on and in them — became suspects in any number of epidemics. As McKenna tracks the industry's move away from antibiotic use, she wonders how the chickens of the future might look — and taste.
"Antibiotic resistance is like climate change," she writes. "It is an overwhelming threat, created over decades by millions of individual decisions and reinforced by the actions of industries."
Does industry have the will to ditch antibiotics and embrace smaller, harder-to-raise chickens? The answer may depend on whether you're willing to step away from those nuggets. But in the meantime, the details of modern factory farming contained in McKenna's book might make you sheepish about chicken anyway.