The most bizarre story is doing the rounds in small towns and villages around the Kerala/ Tamil Nadu border where I live. Local people insist they saw a TV programme in which fluid from patients with diseased swollen legs (elephantiasis possibly?) was extracted and injected into chickens to increase their weight. It sounded ridiculous.
So I Googled the story, but couldn’t find a trace of it. Chicken scare reports I did find included poultry being slaughtered by government order because of a chicken flu fears and old US reports about chickens contaminated by arsenic and bad feed. That was it.
But it’s this bazaar gossip, the sort of improbably fantastic, totally fictitious tale which turns into a nightmare for chicken farmers. I realized that the story, however ludicrous, was having an impact when I heard that there were full-page leaflets distributed with the morning newspaper telling people that there was no truth to the stories whatsoever. So obviously the rumours had already affected poultry sales.
I first heard alarm bells about chicken when my very carnivorous son announced we should stop eating poultry. ‘Why?’ I asked, in bewildered disbelief. Apparently, a group of his friends inadvertently discovered that a local chicken farm regularly injected preventive antibiotics into baby chicks and continued the process until they went on the market. Because, if you didn't they'd possibly, most probably, contract some disease in the six or so weeks of their lives and die, leaving a huge hole in the pocket of the poultry farmer.
Avian disease can spread uncontrollably, so the entire flock could get wiped out in a week. Worse, it could spread within days to kill all the birds in the vicinity. So vaccinations and antibiotics are routine. ‘It's nothing new,’ my husband informed me matter-of-factly. ‘Since the sixties, birds were always vaccinated and disease management is just a part of life on a farm.’
It’s all very complicated and simplistic solutions are obviously not the answer. Perhaps, one possibility may be to keep the process completely organic? The idea could spread if it came with education on the dangers of pesticides and chemicals polluting the food chain. The tragedy is, before the sixties, all chickens were organic. The problems came in when factory farming entered India.
But the old breeds, known here as country chickens, are considered much tastier. However, the meat is tougher and needs long, slow cooking. It needs time, something modern days cooks don't have.
The good thing is that awareness about our polluted food chain and the links to cancer and other disease is growing rapidly. Everyone has a relative somewhere desperately fighting cancer which was rare in the old, organically and locally-grown food days.
Years ago, I did an article for an NI mag, the Red-Green issue. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many small farmers were opting to go back to organic farming, because people were becoming aware of the health hazards from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They also voted that the taste of organically grown food was infinitely better.
In India, Kerala often leads the way. Newspapers and magazines there cover real issues apart from the fluff. There are a few healthy, organic restaurants already quite famous in Kerala. If there's a demand for organic chicken, that would bring in a whole new dimension to the still struggling Green movement here. But that's another story.