The food writer at Fortune magazine says, “cage-free eggs are now the norm” and the poultry welfare debate is shifting to a new battleground. The next front? Fast-growth chickens.
Fortune points out today’s chickens grown for meat go to market in 48 days at 6.2 pounds compared to 112 days and 2.5 pounds in 1925. A 2014 Canadian study demonstrated how broilers today are bred to more efficiently turn feed into breast meat. Because of this efficiency, the price of poultry rose at about half the rate of other consumer goods between 1960 and 2004. Chicken’s popularity with consumers rose commensurately. In early 2014 it was reported that for the first time in over a century, Americans were eating more chicken than beef.
Animal welfare groups say this progress was achieved at the expense of animal health as today’s chickens have increased leg disorders and other issues associated with rapid growth. In an undercover video investigation at a North Carolina broiler farm released this week, the group Mercy For Animals claimed, among other things, “Chickens are bred to grow so fast they became crippled under their own weight and died from heart attacks.”
Fortune food writer Beth Kowitt reports some major food companies, including General Mills, Nestlé, Aramark and Compass Group, have acknowledged fast-growth poultry is an issue to at least discuss and that they are “working to understand” or “working with suppliers to address” the issue.
It’s a fact that most of the chickens grown for meat today, called “broilers” in the poultry industry, have been bred for rapid growth and increased breast meat yields. These modern strains of broilers are physiologically and genetically distant from the chickens of 50 years ago, let alone their ancient ancestor the Red Junglefowl.
Critics of modern production contend chickens today grow so fast they are unable to stand and support their own weight and are prevented from performing natural behaviors. Scientific research shows precisely how today’s chickens spend their time.
Broilers spend about 76 percent of their time sitting, seven percent of their time standing idle on their feet, 3.5 percent standing preening, 4.7 percent of their time standing eating, and three percent of their time drinking. When these fast-growing chickens are given access to pasture and their growth rate is slowed through diet manipulation, they still spend the majority of their time sitting (Weeks et al., 1994. Animal Welfare).
The fact that most chickens grown for meat today are specifically bred for meat production is viewed by some as unnatural. The scientific perspective? Cats and dogs are selectively bred in order to produce desirable traits sought by pet owners. Many fruits and vegetables are larger than they used to be because of selective breeding. Science allows attributes to be added to plants and animals in order to provide the things consumers want.
This kind of scientific justification falls on deaf ears without first establishing an ethical foundation. Science tells us if we can do something. Society tells us if we should be doing it. Regardless of the science, the marketplace will follow the public’s wishes.
A growing number of consumers are raising concerns about animal welfare, as well as nutrition, food safety, food affordability, and the use of technology in producing food. These concerns create greater pressure for every sector of the food system. The industry has traditionally responded by either attacking the attackers, or using science to justify new practices.
Not only are these tactics ineffective but they can make consumers even more suspicious of how food is produced. The food system needs to demonstrate to the rational majority that even though the size and scale of the food industry and its use of technology has changed, as evidenced with modern breeds of chicken, the commitment to do what’s right is as strong as ever.
Once the ethical foundation has been established, claims can be verified with objective science, and the case can be made for economic viability. It is only by achieving and maintaining a balance between ethics, science and economics that new systems and technology can be truly sustainable.