For most Canadians, the mention of bacteria and chicken in the same sentence conjures up images of food poisoning. Names such as Salmonella and Campylobacter come to mind as do memories for anyone who might have suffered. In essence, the two do not mix.
But this applies only to chicken as a food product. On the farm, bacteria play an important role in the health of these animals. Depending on the species found inside the gastrointestinal tract, a bird may have a healthy life or be burdened with ailments leading to a loss of quality such as size and taste.
For decades, researchers have investigated the influence of bacteria in the life of poultry. The goal has been to identify which species might contribute to a healthier life and avoid the presence of pathogens. If the right combination can be found, then parameters such as feed composition and housing conditions can be altered to allow for the chickens to have the best chance at a healthy life.
At the end of the 1990s, researchers came across an interesting concept. Instead of simply allowing the bacteria to figure themselves out inside the chickens, farmers could improve the situation by adding beneficial bacteria in the feed, species now commonly called probiotics.
Over time, a list of different probiotic species was developed and by 2014, when the chicken microbial population was identified, certain names such as Bacillus, Clostridium, and the well-known human probiotic Lactobacillus were revealed to offer the most impressive improvements. Soon, the practice of using probiotics became a part of poultry farming around the world.
While probiotics offered the chance for a chicken to have a healthier life, the quality of the meat when it arrived on store shelves was never considered a priority. As long as the meat came from a healthy chicken, the use of probiotics was justified. For the most part, there were no arguments.
For a team of researchers in China, however, the compromise was not good enough. They believed there was potential to increase the flavour of meat using probiotics. They didn't know at the time which of the increasing number of species might have a positive effect on quality. Yet they took on the challenge in the hopes of finding the one species that could make chicken taste even better. Recently, they revealed they had found the bacterium.
Species fed to chickens is already in some sour beers
The species is called Pediococcus pentosaceusand for decades, it's been known as a wild fermenter. It's found in a variety of different Asian fermented foods as well as some sour beers found in Europe. It has been considered a potential probiotic and investigations into its use in humans and chickens continue to this day.
For the Chinese team, the addition of P. pentosaceus to the mix of other probiotics was justified although they weren't sure if there would be any benefit compared to other species. Still, when they conducted the experiments, they ensured one segment of the 420 chickens used in the study was given only this particular species.
When the results came back, they were glad they took this approach. The addition of the bacteria alone kept the birds healthy throughout their lifespan and even led to an increase in their weight over time. As for the microbial population in the gastrointestinal tract, the addition of this one species helped to keep the species diversity balanced.
The chicken meat had a higher level of elements conveying the taste of fruit, fat, and straight-from-the-farm freshness.
But the real surprise came in the taste, which the team tested not with their mouths, but through chemical analysis. They looked for a variety of chemicals known to provide different flavours. The chicken meat had a higher level of elements conveying the taste of fruit, fat, and straight-from-the-farm freshness. In some cases, the levels were three times higher than in chickens raised with no probiotics.
The results of this study reveal a new potential for probiotics in raising chickens. Along with helping to keep them healthy and avoid infections, the use of P. pentosaceus may improve the overall quality of the meat. This eventually can lead to increased purchasing at the grocery store and better profits for farmers.
There is another advantage to using probiotics in chickens and indeed all livestock. These beneficial bacteria may be able to replace the use of antibiotics on the farm. For decades, these medicines have been used to increase growth in animals such as chickens. Yet in light of the antibiotic resistance crisis and the looming post-antibiotic era, governments and the public are turning away from this option.
Thanks to this study and surely many more to come, we may find ourselves not only enjoying an even tastier chicken dinner but also breathing easier as we know the animals were raised naturally with bacteria instead of drugs.
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