On average, some 1,500 broiler chickens are sold each year by pastured poultry farms—small enterprises that raise the birds in open-air pens or free-range environments, giving them an antibiotic-free, organic diet that’s USDA-certified.
Due to size, these farms are exempt from USDA inspection requirements—although some farmers choose to be inspected anyway.
Naturally, pastured poultry appeals to the growing local food movement. “There aren’t good numbers on how many such farms there are, as they’re not collected by the USDA agriculture census,” said Kristin Gibson, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in food science at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Center for Food Safety. “But it’s becoming a lot more common as people realize they can sell pastured poultry at local farmer’s markets and restaurants. The [American] Pastured Poultry [Producers] Association has 500 members, but there are a lot more farms than that out there.”
But how well does on-farm processing fare in controlling pathogen contamination? That’s unknown. Due to size, these farms are exempt from USDA inspection requirements—although some farmers choose to be inspected anyway. “But no real, comprehensive study has been done of food safety risks at these farms as compared to at small USDA facilities,” said Dr. Gibson.
That’s the goal of a new two-year, $272,684 project funded by the federally supported Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) agency. Three institutions—the University of Arkansas and Louisiana’s Southern University, led by the University of Georgia—will assess pathogen levels in birds from eight pastured poultry farms in the three states.
“Most farms have stopped growing for the year, but once it all starts up again, our researchers will be at all the participating farms for each flock that goes through processing, sampling both the final chicken product as well as the waste that is produced,” said Dr. Gibson. “Here in Arkansas, we have a model mobile processing facility, and we will process local birds here as well. Then we will compare bacterial loads as well as characterizing the waste production.” The project will also assess the economic feasibility of pastured poultry production using the mobile processing units compared to other types of processing.