From wildlife refuge to table: A story about the culled Jamaica Bay geese

Geese. (Minty Grover)
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Minty Grover

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Since 2009, when Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenburger had to land in the Hudson due to a bird strike by a flock of geese, the federal Department of Agriculture has been doing its best to keep the local goose population down.

In the latest regular cull by the USDA, on July 9, more than 700 Canada Geese were removed from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, near John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In past years, the geese were euthanized and disposed of in landfills. This time, reports said, the cull process included a rage-mitigating charitable gesture: meat from the birds would be donated to food pantries and soup kitchens in New York State instead.

The reports contained no further detail about the animals’ path from wildlife sanctuary to table. When and where were they to be killed? How would the meat be processed? Where would it all end up, and in what form?

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A call to the USDA yielded answers to some of the questions.

According to Carol Bannerman, a department spokeswoman, past goose roundups ended with the animals being gassed by carbon dioxide, and the bodies dumped in a landfill. The meat, obviously, went to waste.

Officials wanted to do something different this time, she said, and knew of other states, like Pennsylvania, where donations of goose meat were common. It also turned out to be the case that many food banks—warehouse-type institutions that distribute food to hundreds of pantries and soup kitchens—in New York State frequently received donations of wild game like deer from hunters.

The people who run the food banks confirmed this, although they said they don't get wild goose-meat donations as regularly.

According to Bannerman, the city’s wild geese got approval for human consumption last year, and the geese that were captured and killed in 2011 were donated to food charities in Pennsylvania, as the system for processing goose meat there is already up and running. This year, the USDA found a state-approved processor in New York, in time for the most recent culling.  

Bannerman said food banks are always happy with donations of meat.  

“One of the types of food that is very hard to come by in food charities is proteins,” said Bannerman.  

DON RIEPE, WHO OVERSEES THE JAMAICA BAY GUARDIAN program, a state-funded coastal conservation operation in the bay, was present the day the geese were captured.   

“They did it as humanely as possible,” he said. “They rounded them up and put them in individual crates, like you transport any live product.”   

Riepe said the department was allowed to take up to 1000 geese. The number ended up being closer to 700 because that was all they could catch, he said.   

“It’s not easy,” said Riepe. “They only have a certain timeframe when they can get them when they’re flightless.”  

He said this is during a period of several weeks when Canada Geese are molting their flight feathers. Because not every goose molts at the same time, he said some of them were still able to fly away.   

The USDA selected areas where there were large concentrations of geese, which were in two ponds of the wildlife refuge, said Riepe.   

“I believe they went out in boats and got them to come on shore,” he said. “Small boats. Might have been kayaks.”   

Once they were on land, he said, the geese were herded together onto a trail, which was then closed off on both ends.   

“They used a caging of something like a snow fencing or plastic netting,” said Riepe. “Then they just picked them up and put them in crates and carted them off.”   

As one of the people charged with protecting the coastal environment of Jamaica Bay, Riepe says he has faced complaints suggesting he rolled over too easily by allowing the USDA to take the birds.   

“It’s not nice, no one likes it,” he said. “But what are you going to do? If a plane comes down as a result of a bird strike, a goose strike, people could be harmed.”   

In the end, Riepe said, although he wasn’t pleased about the culling of the birds, he understood the reasons for it.   

“We’re trying to strike a balance that will hopefully allow planes and birds to co-exist,” he said.  

AFTER THE GEESE WERE CAPTURED IN JAMAICA Bay, they were delivered to a meat processor upstate on the same day, according to the USDA.

The department wouldn’t release the name of the processor, or the names of the food charities that were receiving the goose meat. Bannerman, the spokeswoman, said when names have been released in the past, the groups have come under pressure to reject donations of meat on grounds that the geese weren’t edible because of contamination.  

I called each of the eight regional food banks in New York State several weeks after the cull, but none of them had heard about receiving a consignment of wild geese from the city yet. Most added that they usually didn’t hear about receiving a donation until it was almost ready to pick up. The Food Bank for Westchester, however, said it was receiving a donation of around 500 Canada Geese from nearby Sprain Lake Golf Course—also supervised by the USDA.  

Once the Westchester geese were delivered, the food bank said the name on the packages it received was Kroll Farm. Anthony Kroll, a third-generation farmer, runs this farm and meat processing business with his girlfriend. Bannerman later confirmed to me that the Westchester geese and the city’s geese were processed at the same time and place.  

Kroll said the geese that arrived were of different ages, young and old. He and the seven or eight workers he’d hired started processing them immediately.  

“They’re stuck in those cages, get it over with,” said Kroll, who cares for his own farm animals. “When they’re uncomfortable, just get it over with.”  

He said he didn’t want to go into specifics of exactly how the geese were butchered due to fear of getting into trouble with animal-rights groups, which he said has happened in the past.  

“[The geese] come in. They’re live. We kill them in a humane way,” Kroll said.  

After the geese are killed, the next step in the process is to remove the breasts, which Kroll said was the only part of the geese that was being used for meat. He said it was the best part and the rest of the goose was too tough to eat.  

Kroll said after the breasts were removed, they were put into a chill tank with ice cubes and water to cool them down to a temperature of 40 degrees. Then the meat was put into a cooler, which is where it stayed overnight.  

“We don’t fool around,” Kroll said. “He brings them at 12 o’clock and by 4 o’clock they’re done.”  

The next morning the meat is packaged and put into freezers to be frozen solid and ready for pick-up, Kroll said. He said the whole process, from butchering to freezing, took 36 to 48 hours.  

By July 27, three weeks after the Canada Geese from the city had been captured, the geese had been processed into goose breast meat portions. But they weren't ready for distribution.  

ON AUGUST 2 AND 3, ACCORDING TO BANNERMAN, THE CITY-HARVESTED goose meat was delivered from the processor to the food charities. The department also said it delivered 450 pounds of goose meat to food charities in Westchester County on Aug. 3, confirming what the food bank in that region had said. But the USDA still wouldn’t release the name of the food bank that was receiving the geese from the city. 

Again, I called the seven other food banks in the state, and finally the Food Bank of Central New York said it had received 640 pounds of goose meat on Aug 3. It was the only food bank other than the one in Westchester that received goose meat during this time.   

The Central New York food bank also said after receiving the goose meat, the last 100 pounds was handed out less than two weeks later on Aug 16.   

“It flies out of here,” said Peter Ricardo, who is in charge of procurement and purchasing at the food bank.  

He said it was because animal protein is generally costly and not donated often enough, and that the USDA donating it at very little to no cost was, therefore, extremely welcome.   

Ricardo said this shipment of goose meat was the third his food bank has received over the last nine years. He also said he could understand why meat from city geese would wind up upstate, because people in that area have more experience preparing meat from wild game.  

“Wild geese meat or goose meat is very tough and very dry,” said Ricardo. “People in rural areas, especially like in upstate rural counties, for generations have been used to that because we hunt up here.”  

He said it takes a lot of skill and know-how to prepare the meat.    

“If you put that goose meat in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what it is or what to do with it, they would be very unhappy with the outcome,” Ricardo said. “You can get a good product out of it if you know what you’re doing.” 

Ricardo, who is also a chef, said, “You would marinate the meat or you would grind it. Give it a long cooking method like hot pot. You have to make it more palatable.”  

MAKING THE MEAT PALATABLE WASN'T THE ONLY concern. The packaged wild goose meat processed at Kroll Farm also came with warnings, said Jeanne Wilcox at the Food Bank for Westchester.   

First, Wilcox said, the label on the package stated that the New York State Department of Health recommended no more than two meals of the wild geese per month because they may have been exposed to environmental contaminants. However, Wilcox said it was followed by an assurance that testing of the wild goose meat indicated that the contaminants should not be a human health concern.   

There are environmental conservationists and food safety experts who disagree with that assessment, though.   

Jeff Tittel, New Jersey chapter director of the Sierra Club, said he thinks it’s very likely that the meat from the wild geese, and more so from those taken from near the airport, is contaminated.   

“When airplanes take off they spray jet fuel and when they land they release jet fuel,” said Tittel. “So do they really want that type of meat?”   

Jean Grassman, associate professor of health and nutrition sciences at Brooklyn College, said a big issue with wild goose meat is a specific urban contaminant called polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB.   

“The concern is that they’re developmental toxicants,” Grassman said.  

According to her, PCB levels are higher in aquatic systems, which is to say environments frequented by waterfowl like geese. 

“The issue of contamination is a real possibility in wild fowl,” she said. 

But the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said they have very thoroughly tested the meat from the wild geese and found it to be safe for human consumption.  

“Over 15 years there were probably 150 to 200 pieces of meat that were tested,” said Bryan Swift, from the department’s wildlife resources division. 

(The geese specifically from the wildlife refuge near the airport haven’t been tested, he said.)

The other warning that came with the packaged breast meat, Wilcox said, was that there was a possibility that the meat had birdshot—a type of shotgun shell, which could contain lead. The warning continued on, said Wilcox, advising that to avoid chipping teeth or swallowing the shell, anyone eating the meat should keep an eye out for shells while cutting it.   

“Gee, thanks,” said Wilcox. “It makes you terrified to chew on it.”   

However, as Ricardo said, his food bank has received the occasional donation of goose meat before, and he reiterates that it’s a matter of knowing what you’re dealing with.   

“Again, when people are used to it, you can tell if there’s any shot in the muscle. It’s really not that hard to find,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a danger, it’s just an awareness thing.”  

Ricardo also added that the birdshot would have to specifically be in the breast, which he said wasn't usually where it ended up. 

MOST OF THE PEOPLE I SPOKE TO WHO RUN FOOD BANKS said, without reservation, that they would have been very happy to receive donations of meat from wild geese.    

Peter Braglia, from Long Island Cares, said, “People don’t understand wild game is so much more nutritious than what you can buy in the store. There’s no hormones given to these birds.”  

He also said that he thought goose meat was delicious.   

“Not for nothing, you know, 50 years ago goose was the standard for Christmas meals,” Braglia said.   

He said he wanted to find out how his food bank could also be on the receiving end of wild goose meat donations.   

“I wish I could have been part of it,” Braglia said. “I would have accepted it with open arms.”

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