BIG CHICKEN by Maryn McKenna


The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats
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An investigative journalist specializing in public health and food policy delves into the implications of chicken becoming the most consumed source of protein in the American diet.

When chickens are raised or processed poorly, serious or fatal food poisoning can result. Indeed, McKenna (Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, 2010, etc.) opens her exposé with the story of a near death from salmonella poisoning (the cause of 1 million instances of illness each year in the United States) linked to mass-produced chicken. However, the focus of the investigation is not specifically food poisoning. The author is most concerned about how the overuse of antibiotics to prevent or treat human diseases, and in animal feed, has led to drug-resistant bacteria. When antibiotics can no longer neutralize certain bacteria, fatalities can occur. A strength of McKenna’s reporting is her inclusion of valuable historical context, as she shows how the antibiotic crisis has evolved over the decades. She divides the roughly chronological narrative into three parts: “How Chicken Became Essential,” “How Chicken Became Dangerous,” and the somewhat-hopeful section, “How Chicken Changed.” Each part contains lessons derived from visits to poultry processing operations both small and large (think Perdue and Tyson), farms where chickens grow only to a certain size, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and private science laboratories. McKenna learned not only from sources in the United States—Georgia is now, in many ways, the center of the chicken industry—but also from speaking with experts in the Netherlands, France, and England. Throughout the narrative, the author also unravels medical mysteries, such as why some urinary tract infections are not responding to treatment with antibiotics. McKenna’s ideas for reform seem practical, but she warns in clear, urgent prose that it will take years to fully conquer bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Solid, eye-opening public health journalism.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4262-1766-1
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: National Geographic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2017


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