Special chicken: Fed pricey herb, to strains of Mozart

Chickens reared this way cost thrice as much but are proving a hit
Jessica Lim, Straits Times 9 Sep 09;

AIR-CONDITIONING, check. Mood lighting, check. Soft strains of Mozart playing through the day, check.

The setting for a seduction?

No, this place in central Johor, hemmed in by zinc walls, is a farm and home to 200,000 chickens - at least until they land on a dinner plate in Singapore a month later.

These birds are fed either a powdered corn-soya bean mix laced with Cordyceps sinesis, an expensive Chinese herb believed to increase immunity, or one mixed with cultured Lactobacillus, the 'good' bacteria which aids digestion and is found in drinks like Yakult and Vitagen.

When the birds arrive slaughtered and packaged in wet markets and supermarkets, they are labelled as Cordyceps chickens and Sakura chickens respectively.

They have quite a following. Introduced just a month ago, Cordyceps chickens are selling at the rate of about 1,000 a day. Sales of Sakura chickens have grown from 1,000 a day when they were first sold two years ago to about 3,000 a day now, said Mr Kwek Theng Swee, the 63-year-old chief executive of chicken farming and processing company Kee Song Brothers Poultry Industry.

'The music calms the birds down. They are not stressed, so the meat is more tender and sweeter,' he said.

They are also a lot more expensive.

A Cordyceps chicken, with a packet of herbs thrown in, costs $16.80, and a Sakura chicken, $8.60. Regular chickens that led less fancy lives cost about $5 each.

Another company, Chew's Agriculture, specialises in Cordyceps eggs laid by Cordyceps-fed chickens. The farm in Lim Chu Kang now sells 5,000 eggs a week, twice what it sold two years ago.

Its managing director Chew Eng Hoe, 44, claims the eggs contain 30 per cent less cholesterol than ordinary eggs and have better texture and 'bouncier' whites.

Consumers pay a premium for these qualities - $3.65 for a pack of six from supermarkets, or about twice the cost of 10 regular eggs.

So how did such chickens and eggs come about and are they worth the price?

Cordyceps eggs came before Cordyceps chickens: Homegrown biotech firm and Cordyceps supplier A P Nutripharm came up with a powder to mix into chicken feed as a substitute for the antibiotics fed to the birds to fight off infections.

A P first approached Chew's Agriculture to produce Cordyceps eggs. When the eggs sold well in 2007, A P went into partnership with Kee Song to produce Cordyceps chickens as well.

A P's chief executive Mark Xu said the herb dosages were adjusted, and the chickens and eggs tested for levels of Cordycepin, the compound in Cordyceps.

It is possible Cordycepin is retained in the meat, but nutritionists like Ho Yi Fei of DaySpring Corporate Wellness say the amount retained is another thing.

Dr Frederic Chua, a veterinarian, has the same doubt. He said the food consumed by the animal has to be broken down, absorbed and metabolised by the liver for it to be assimilated into its meat, after which the meat has to withstand the rigours of slaughter and cooking.

'I would be sceptical about the level of active ingredients in the end products,' he said, and suggested that consumers search for published data or ask the company to verify its claim.

But Madam Chin Lai Yin, 58, is already sold. She serves her family Cordyceps chicken at least four times a week and thinks the extra cost worth it.

The mother of three said: 'My children like it. It is the only way I can get them to eat Chinese herbs.'

She is also mindful of her own health: 'For my age, I think I also need to eat more things like this to keep healthy.'

Fish farm owners are also cottoning on to adding 'oomph' into their stocks this way.

One, Mr Malcolm Ong of Metropolitan Fishery Group, is in talks with A P Nutripharm. If things pan out, some fish on his four farms in Lim Chu Kang will be fed a diet that is a far cry from the 'trash feed' they now get - discarded kacang putih and stale bread.

The 46-year-old said: 'We hope to mix fish feed with Cordyceps too. The fish will be healthier to eat and we can get a better price per fish. Why not?'

Why Cordyceps and cultured Lactobacillus?
Straits Times 9 Sep 09;

THE Chinese discovered the health benefits of Cordyceps centuries ago, when they noticed that sheep which grazed on this fungus were stronger and healthier.

How the fungus comes about is somewhat bizarre: The parasitic fungus Cordyceps sinensis starts by attacking a particular caterpillar species in winter.

While the caterpillar hibernates, the fungus eats away at it. By winter's end, the caterpillar host's tissue is completely replaced, by which time it looks more like a plant.

Traditional herbalists now use the fungus to cure diseases. Cordyceps is also believed to provide anti-ageing and immunity boosts.

Cultured Lactobacillus is a dairy product produced by bacterial fermentation of milk and is nutritionally rich in protein and calcium.

When consumed, it improves overall health, particularly of the digestive system.