The Next Step in Animal Welfare? Breed a Better Chicken

A little-noticed program that was announced last week by the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit that works with farmers and retailers to improve animal welfare, asks chicken farmers to change the breeds of the birds they are raising to a more hardy, slower-growing breed. And it may just have the potential to remake the market for chicken in the United States.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: About a decade ago, the same group persuaded one retailer to buy only cage-free eggs, at a time when keeping laying hens in ranks of small, stacked cages was the only way of doing business. Today, 10 states and 35 major food companies—including McDonald’s, Target, ConAgra and General Mills—have committed to buying only cage-free eggs, and more are moving in that direction.

Just as with cage-free eggs, the change in the GAP chicken standards is going to start small: It will be most visible at Whole Foods Market, and will directly affect only a tiny portion, 277 million out of almost 9 billion, of the broiler chickens raised each year in the United States. But if it illuminates that animal welfare concerns are important enough for Whole Foods’ affluent consumers to change their buying behavior, it is likely to set a trend.

To understand how this is going to work, it helps to know a little bit about how chickens are raised now. In the United States—in fact, in most of the world—the birds that become chicken meat grow from chicks to slaughter weight, 5 to 6 pounds, in 38 to 42 days. That wasn’t always so; in the 1950s, as documented by the journal Poultry Science, birds took twice that long to get to half that weight. But 60 years of selective breeding, routine antibiotics and precision tuning of feed ingredients have produced a chicken that can grow the maximum amount of meat in the minimum possible time.

Economic efficiency comes at a cost. As the ASPCA revealed in its report “A Growing Problem,” fast-growing chickens are kept in barns that allow them little space to move; they are denied outdoor access or unfiltered ventilation because their immune systems are underdeveloped; they develop too much muscle for their legs or wings to bear their weight. Those problems are inescapable given the structure of the broiler industry and the genetics of the bird. And they’re what the new standard aims to change.

“When you try to influence animal welfare, you are looking at management, environment and genetics,” Anne Malleau, GAP’s executive director, tells me. “You can set great standards for management requirements and for the growing environment; but a modern-day broiler has so many issues, it almost doesn’t matter what standard you set. We decided the only way to address the problem was to address the bird itself.”

So what the new GAP standard asks producers and retailers to do is to switch to broilers that have been bred to grow more slowly and in a more balanced manner: gaining no more than 50 grams of weight per day, which translates to a bird that lives 56-62 days instead of 35-42.

Most Americans who aren’t chicken farmers—which is to say, most Americans, since there are only about 25,000 chicken farmers in the country—have never seen a conventional chicken, because the birds live their short lives in solid-walled barns. They are almost always white-feathered, with yellow legs and a red comb, and generically known as a “Cobb cross” or, less often, a “Ross” followed by a few numbers: 308, 508, 708. Those names come from the companies that hybridized them and maintain their genetic lines:  U.S.-based Cobb Vantress, and the Ross division of the German Aviagen Group.

A six-week-old broiler rooster at a commercial chicken farm.

A six-week-old broiler rooster at a commercial chicken farm. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

 

Slower-growth birds tend to be more slender and upright than a conventional American bird, because in the countries where their genetics originated, primarily Europe, breast meat is not so highly valued. They can be white, but are more likely to have colored feathers, originating from the heritage breeds that were the origins of their genetic lines. In the United States, they are often rusty-red, and go by names that indicate their strength and outdoorishness—such as “Freedom Rangers,” a line owned by Hubbard, the third dominant international genetics company.

Back to the new standards. The GAP folks also ask that barns allow more space per bird, and that they include things that will stimulate birds to behave like chickens, including giving them natural light, bales and boards to perch on, and ingredients in the barn litter that will encourage them to peck.

In the United States, a few companies do raise chicken this way. GAP certifies producers on animal welfare—2,800 farms overall, 600 of them raising chicken—on a 5-step scale, and those that come in at steps 4 and 5 already hew to these standards, or exceed them by using hardy breeds that can live completely outdoors. (Some examples: Mary’s Free Range Chicken on the West Coast, and White Oak Pastures in the Southeast.) But there has been little guidance that could help larger producers, whose products come lower on the scale, move to birds that are more resilient and slower-growing.

“Solving the problem of how the most factory-farmed animal in the country is treated, and giving them a life worth living, is absolutely tied to creating a standard that is meaningful and that companies can run with,” says Leah Garces, the U.S. director for the international nonprofit Compassion in World Farming, who is on GAP’s board.

To investigate whether the change was feasible, GAP commissioned a working group of major chicken producers, and involved Whole Foods, which evaluates all its meat purchases using the 5-step GAP scale. “All of our suppliers were interested; it wasn’t like they said, ‘No way, we can’t do this,'” Theo Weening, Whole Foods’ global meat buyer, tells me. “Some of them had long histories in the chicken industry, and they remembered when chickens were slower-growing and had more flavor. So when GAP came up with the standard, I went back to the suppliers, and they said, let’s work together, instead of having one guy make it to the finish line first.”

Whole Foods and GAP have set a goal of switching chicken over to slower-growth breeds in eight years, and Bon Appétit Management Company, a trend-setting operator of sustainably sourced food service at universities, museums and corporations such as eBay and Google, has signed on to “move in this direction and embrace it,” says Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer. Behind the phrasing of those commitments lies a uncomfortable reality: There just isn’t that much slow-growth chicken available right now.

But there could be, Sean Holcombe tells me. Holcombe is the North America director of sales and technical service for Hubbard. Up to now, he said, slower-growth birds—more flavorful, as Weening said, but often more muscular—have been bought primarily by small producers, and by farmers growing for markets catering to Asian and Latino communities. Spooling up to greater demand will take time.

“They’re talking 277 million birds, when they are done,” Holcombe tells me by phone from Tennessee, Hubbard’s US base. “If you do the math and divide that by 52 weeks, that means they will need about 5 million new broilers every week. We’re not there now, because we don’t have enough parent birds, enough grandparents, for what would be needed. But we can get there. It will take a little time.”