Poultry producers mull slower growers

White chickenAbout a century ago, your typical chicken took about four months to grow to a weight of three pounds. Today, however, the typical broiler, or meat chicken, grows to twice that size in half the time. While these birds are feeding more people than ever before, some animal welfare advocates think the rate of their growth is causing the birds to suffer and are calling for the poultry industry to turn back the clock and produce the slower-growing chickens of the past.

William Muir, a poultry geneticist at Purdue University, said in an article that this transformation was mainly a triumph of chicken breeding. “This is what genetics does. We can actually make more from less,” he says — more chicken meat from less feed, in less time. It wasn’t magic or genetic engineering.

Muir added that poultry breeders simply got their fastest-growing chickens to mate with each other, generation after generation. “We just breed the best to the best, and you get the best,” Muir said.

The “best” chicken, for the past century, has been one that put on muscle quickly. But according to Muir, a trait that was great for the poultry industry turned out to be not so great for the chickens themselves as all that weight, accumulated quickly, can overwhelm a young chicken’s bones.

“We’re having problems with legs,” Muir explained. “They can’t support the weight. We have problems with splayed legs, joint problems. This is a major well-being concern, if the bird can’t walk.”

Studies have observed these problems in anywhere from 15–30% of chickens grown for their meat, and while many are slaughtered when they’re still young, others are kept around in order to reproduce. They are the so-called breeder flocks — the source of the billions of chickens that people eat.

Because these chickens live longer, they have a special problem. “They’re so big and heavy, if we let them keep on eating, they couldn’t reproduce. So they have to be on a diet, a severe diet, and they’re always hungry,” Muir said.

For all those reasons, some animal welfare advocates have been calling on poultry companies to turn back the clock and return to slower-growing breeds of chickens, which still do exist. Poultry producers can order them from the same big chicken-breeding companies that created the fast-growing chicken.

As of late the article explains there has been an increasing demand for slower-growing breeds in Europe. In the U.S., they’re mainly used by farmers who want to raise their chickens the old-fashioned way, running around outdoors.

Theo Weening, the global meat buyer for a popular supermarket chain, says his stores do stock small quantities of such pastured poultry. “Actually, I’m on my way this afternoon to Arkansas, to Crystal Lake Farms, [which] uses a slow-growing chicken,” he said in the article.

The store also recently announced that it wants all of its suppliers, even those raising large numbers of broilers indoors, to shift over to slower-growing breeds of chickens.

This sort of shift will take eight years, but when said and done, it will also create welfare standards for its suppliers, who produce 277 million birds annually. That represents about 3% of the country’s broilers.

The slow-growing bird “is a much better, healthier chicken, and at the same time it’s a much [more] flavorful chicken as well,” Weening added.

However, he admits that these chickens will come with a cost. Slower-growing breeds consume more feed per pound of meat. According to data on the website of the poultry breeding company Aviagen, a slower-growing breed called Rowan Ranger, consumes about 25% more feed while growing to a weight of 6 pounds, compared to that of the Ross 308 breed, which the company says is the “world’s most popular broiler.”

The National Chicken Council, which represents major poultry producers, has since released a statement disputing the idea that faster-growing chickens are less healthy or are suffering.

The Chicken Council also pointed out the benefits of the industry’s push for ever greater efficiency. It has cut the cost of growing chickens, reduced the amount of land required to grow chicken feed, and made chicken the most popular meat in America.

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