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Now reading Why Slow-Growing Chickens Are the Next Big Thing

Why Slow-Growing Chickens Are the Next Big Thing

The change coming to chicken.

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I spent weeks trying to get an audience with Dr. Paul Aho, but the great man never returned my calls or e-mails. Aho is Big Chicken’s number-one egghead, an international poultry economist who works from a tidy, two-story, tree-shrouded house near Hartford, Connecticut (thanks, Google Street View!).

For the past thirty years, his columns in trade journals like Broiler Industry were required reading—a celebration of maximalist American innovation applied to one of the most efficient (if increasingly insipid) industrial animal proteins on earth.

He marveled as genetic advancements and fine-tuned feeding turned broiler chickens—that’s the insider term for meat birds—into chest-heavy, weak-kneed, fast-growing freaks of modern breeding. Broilers ballooned from an average size at slaughter of just more than four pounds in the early 1980s to more than ten pounds at the upper end today. (Chicken breasts can now weigh more than entire chickens did in the 1950s.) And the best part, to Aho, was how cheaply we could do it. Ingenuity and economy reduced the cost of producing a pound of chicken by half. Those jumbo-sized chicken breasts, for instance, were transformed in thirty years from “a luxury product sold in small quantities to the wealthy” into the cut-rate makings of McNuggets. In one particularly triumphalist dispatch, Aho wrote that the chicken had at long last become America’s “king of meats.”

Aho made a comparison a couple of years ago that struck me. In its constant quest to find efficiency in technology, the broiler industry, he wrote, was a lot like the tech industry. His analogy helped me see the modern chicken in a whole new way. Those birds—the Cobb 500, the Ross 708, the Arbor Acres Plus, to cite just a few of the most popular current models—were not mere animals. They were the avian kingdom’s answers to the Microsoft Surface Book and the HP Z240 Workstation: all supercharged bloatware and hair-trigger health problems, but damned if you couldn’t churn them out ever more quickly and make truckloads of money along the way.

I wanted to ask Aho about all this, and especially about how that relentless progress seems primed these days to be flipped on its cockscombed head. Because after decades of bigger-and-faster-is-better breeding, the hottest new thing in America’s broiler industry is a smaller, less efficient chicken that eats more feed and takes longer to grow. It’s Pong in the age of Pokémon Go, and yet some of America’s biggest food and agriculture giants are lining up to lock in their supply.

THE BREWING STORM

While the health issues common to high-performance chickens have long been known, a paper published in the January 2012 issue of the scientific journal Nutrients documented an alarming and potentially more costly class of problems. The paper’s topic was the known diseases, disfigurations, “degenerative myopathies,” and otherwise unappetizing misfortunes that can befall the modern chicken’s flesh before it hits the table—problems the chicken-eating public had started to see. I’m not sure if I’d rather find “green muscle disease” or “pale, soft, exudative” tissue in my plastic-wrapped family pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. And absent a taste test I hope to never conduct, it’s a toss-up whether either of those is preferable to “white striping” and “woody breast,” which one poultry executive recently described to the Wall Street Journal as feeling like “my thigh when I get a cramp playing tennis, there’s a knot in the meat.” His description was apt: the woody breast pictures I’ve seen do look like old white man thighs, if that old white man had advanced jaundice and a particularly revolting case of varicose veins. It’s not just the look: woody breast reportedly imparts a gummy chew.

The incidence of these issues has spiked in the past few years. White striping and woody breast, mostly unknown even within the industry until around 2011, can now appear in broiler flocks at rates of up to 79 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Green muscle disease has started turning up even on small free-range farms. The cause, according to the authors of the Nutrients paper, is the ever-faster-growing chickens. Or as they put it: “It is believed that genetic progress has put more stress on the growing bird and it has resulted in histological and biochemical modifications of the muscle tissue by impairing some meat-quality traits.”

What all this means is that the mantra of “heavier, quicker, cheaper” is no longer just an animal-welfare problem, but also an economic one. Unlike the gastrointestinal diseases, rampant lethargy, and lameness that are everyday annoyances in the fast-growth broiler racket—or the heart attacks that occur in appalling numbers—meat-quality issues are harder to accept as a cost of doing business. While few people outside the industry can picture what a 4.8 percent average mortality rate looks like, gummy, mushy, green-tinged, white-striped, and blood-spotted meat is easy to spot, and reject.

This all matters because it underscores the debate that’s building inside the chicken business. The slow-growing broiler camp has bet that the only way to fix the industry is to change the model altogether. “At the end of the day the genetics of the bird are limiting,” said Anne Malleau, executive director of Global Animal Partnership (GAP), an influential animal-welfare group that’s campaigning, along with the Humane Society of the United States, for slower-growth broilers. “We’ve pushed it a little bit over the edge.”

A FIRST ATTEMPT

David Pitman saw that edge while on a trip to Europe in 2008. His family had been growing poultry in California’s San Joaquin Valley for more than fifty years. But Pitman had come to have misgivings about the kinds of birds his family raised. Their flocks, mostly Cobb 500s, grew fat fast, and cheap, but too many were sickly and listless. Because they grew so big in so little time on undeveloped legs, even walking was too much for some of the birds.

In England and France, he saw a different sort of chicken business. England’s broiler industry, under pressure from animal-welfare groups, had started moving toward chickens that grew more slowly—they took fifty-six and seventy days to get to market size, instead of fast-growing broilers’ forty-two or fewer. In France, slow-growing birds had long been prized for their flavor and texture, with some varieties, like the famed Poulet de Bresse, considered national culinary treasures. (The Netherlands, too, soon got in on the action; within a few years of Pitman’s first European visit, the country began to raise slow-growers at scale, at a profit, in numbers to fill the meat cases at suburban hypermarts.)

As soon as he landed back in California, Pitman took his plans to his dad, the patriarch of the family business. “My dad said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, we still gotta make bank payments. Let’s go through this.’” David’s father let him test his plans on a single farm with room for ten thousand birds per week.

Pitman got the chicks from France and starting raising them. What those birds lost in speed-to-slaughter they gained in ease of raising. The lameness and listlessness all but disappeared. Better still, they didn’t drop dead, he said, from the sorts of diseases more appropriate to palliative-care units than chicken barns.

But while raising them was a pleasure, marketing them was not. This was 2009 still, and almost nobody in America had heard of slow-growing chickens, much less tasted one. In America, chicken then (as now, for the most part) was chicken. You could get organic chicken, air-chilled chicken, grain-fed chicken, free-range chicken, and kosher and halal chicken, certainly, but nobody troubled ordinary customers with age-to-slaughter or breed details. “I was preaching something that no one was ready to know about,” Pitman said. After a few years, he packed his experiment in.

A few months after he’d sent his last slow-growing flock to slaughter, Pitman got a call from one of the meat buyers at Whole Foods, who told him slow-growing chickens were going to be the next big thing. He asked, “Can we get some next week?’”

A STEP BACK IN TIME, AND A STEP FORWARD

Blake Evans’s grandfather helped usher in the bigger-faster-cheaper movement in the 1950s. An amateur geneticist, he was an inductee to the American Poultry Historical Society’s Hall of Fame. The rooster he developed, called the Peterson Male, remains among the more important broiler genetic lines in America. Evans sold it all a few years back: the family’s $160 million per year commodity broiler business went to one of the poultry giants, while the rights to the Peterson Male went to Aviagen, the world’s second-biggest breeding firm.

With that sale completed, Evans turned back in time. “We decided that we needed to reach back to some heritage genetics and work towards building a bird more or less from the ground up,” he said. “What I’m doing now is trying to fix what was done years ago.”

Evans started raising his new line in 2013 at his farm in Decatur, Arkansas. He was happy enough with the results to give the white-feathered, bare-necked cross a name: the Crystal Lake Free Ranger.

He laughed when I asked how his birds are different from the commodity ones sired by his grandfather’s rooster. He noted the same things Pitman had—that they walked with ease and perched up high, and foraged and dust-bathed like real chickens. And when he opens the barn doors to let them outside, his slow-growers line up “like third graders at recess. You can tell that the genetics brought this to the bird. It’s kind of like you brought back its natural characteristics or instincts… It’s almost like they’re athletes instead of couch potatoes.”

AT THE HATCHERY

Sean Holcombe works for Hubbard, one of the three global genetics companies (Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress are the others) that control the broiler breeder trade: they develop the genetic lines and hatch the birds that broiler growers raise.

Until three years ago, Hubbard didn’t bother keeping grandparent slow-growth breeder flocks in its North American farms. The trade was small enough that when an order came in, they’d just ship in the eggs from France.

These days, Hubbard keeps two separate slow-growing female lines and six male lines here. Hubbard’s U.S. slow-grower sales were up 40 percent in 2015, said Holcombe—slow-growth is the company’s fastest-growing market. And that’s before you factor in what happened last March, when the Global Animal Partnership announced it was making slow-growing broilers its next crusade. “The way I look at it, it’s kind of like cage free,” said Anne Malleau. “It’s going to happen.”

Whole Foods signed on immediately; the retailer plans to eliminate fast-growing breeds from its stores entirely by 2024. (This is not entirely surprising: Whole Foods founded the Global Animal Partnership, and the two organizations share key staff, including Malleau. GAP advocates for animal welfare on the farm and at slaughterhouses, and certifies farms and food companies that adopt its standards.)

A few months later, Perdue Farms, which produces 13 million chickens weekly (it’s the fourth largest broiler business in the U.S.), said it was exploring slower-growth genetics as part of its own animal-welfare plan, which will also improve living conditions and make its slaughterhouses more humane. (Perdue, to its credit, is also the only top broiler producer to entirely remove antibiotics from its operations.) The company has a test barn up and running already, said company executive Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown.

This past fall, the U.S. divisions of Compass Group and Aramark, the world’s two largest food-service companies, also jumped in, announcing that they, too, would begin sourcing only slow-growing chickens, and plan to accomplish this in the next eight years. A few weeks later, competitors Sodexo USA, Delaware North, and Centerplate made the same move.

At Hubbard, in Tennessee, Sean Holcombe’s phone has started ringing in a way he isn’t used to. “I’ve had calls from Panera and McDonald’s and on and on and on, different people calling and trying to get more and more information as to what this is going to look like,” he told me. (Panera has since announced it’s moving to slower-growth birds.)

That sort of snowball effect is exactly the reaction a lot of people in the food industry expected—they’ve seen this sort of shift already with the campaigns to get rid of gestation crates for pigs and routine antibiotic use in broiler houses, and with the widespread adoption, in just the past couple of years, of cage-free eggs.

IS THE SKY FALLING?

There is an environmental cost to switching over to birds that eat more food and give less meat. Diana Prichard, a small-scale hog farmer in Michigan who blogs about her business at Righteous Bacon, estimated the additional 11 million bushels of feed needed just for the first wave of slow-growth commitments—Whole Foods and a few GAP-accredited farms—would require the fruits of 112,000 acres of cropland, or more than half the area of New York City. “Which means Whole Foods’ feel-good poultry campaign either requires us to take more than 112,000 acres out of wildlife habitat and put it into cropland,” Prichard wrote, “or all of that additional demand will fall on current cropland, causing a run up in grain—and by extension food—prices.”

That issue—more feed for less meat is harder on the planet—will force consumers to decide how much they value welfare. “You’re gonna need more chicken houses, more chickens, and more feed and more water to produce the same pounds of meat that you are today,” said Hubbard’s Sean Holcombe. He added, “That is going to happen. But the other way of looking at it is, there’s a portion of our consumers, especially very young, very far removed from the farm, that is going to quit buying products that are not what they feel are raised in a humane manner. So maybe the model we have isn’t sustainable long term if the consumer is going to back away.”

And the sector’s got a few other hurdles to overcome. Price, for instance. At Whole Foods, the retailer’s fifty-six-day chicken sells for $4 to $6 per pound, a 60 percent premium on its regular (which is to say: antibiotic-free, GMO-free) birds. Many in the business say that the price difference
should fall as producers find efficiencies in how they raise, process, and feed the birds (a slow-grower benefit: they don’t need nearly such high performance feed as their fast-growing cousins). Slow-growth genetics, a relative backwater until recently, have room yet for more efficiency, and as the market for slow-growth chicken expands, economies of scale could also help.

Eating preferences will have an impact on slow growth’s popularity, too: every time somebody chooses white meat instead of dark, it makes the economics tougher to reconcile. Modern, fast-growing chickens have been bred to be chesty because that’s where the money is: a Cobb 700 grown to maximum weight finishes out at nearly 30 percent boneless breast. Slow-growers, by comparison, top out at around 20 percent white meat, so it’s harder to recoup the cost of farming them at retail. “If all anybody wants is just the breast meat from a slow-growing bird, wow, that’s going to carry a lot of economics,” said Stewart-Brown.

And there are plenty of people within the industry who argue that it makes more sense to fix the problems associated with fast-growing broilers than to throw them out altogether. Dr. Stephen Collett, a clinical professor at the University of Georgia’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center, says the rampant gut issues, for instance, that are caused by the birds’ hardwired overeating can be fixed with smarter feeding programs; in one experiment, poultry researchers have begun fitting birds with transponders that monitor their intake and slowly dole out feed. All these fixes require is the will and the resources, said Collett. “My experience with the U.S. is that the market is much more tentative and slower to move, but when it does move, it moves with tremendous speed.”

Dr. Bill Muir, a poultry geneticist with Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science, agrees that the industry’s efforts should focus first on fixing what it’s got. Leg health, he said, could be fixed within a few generations through simple breeding. (A downside: it would dilute the breeders’ ability to breed for speed and size.) In human terms, said Muir, that fix is possible within four to ten years.

Yet all that possibility is undermined by another, far more powerful reality. Big Chicken doesn’t take kindly to being told how it should operate. The movement to antibiotic-free farming, to cite just one recent example, was greeted with Chicken Little–style histrionics even as major broiler growers like Perdue had already proved it both possible and profitable. (Money line from the number-three U.S. broiler company, Sanderson Farms: “More animals will suffer and/or die for no one’s benefit.”)

As for slow growth, the broiler industry’s biggest lobby group has so far gone full-out passive-aggressive to ward away change. When Compass Group and Aramark announced their new purchasing plans, the National Chicken Council claimed that moving to slow-growing broilers would “have a devastating effect on the environment.”

“We’re committed to continual improvement, but those improvements should be dictated by science and data, not animal-rights activists or emotional rhetoric that is unsupported by facts,” their statement read.

The fact is that the industry has had years to address the needs for “continual improvement”—for example, to fix its flagship product’s inability to walk. And now it’s crying foul even as it needs to correct that, plus the woody breast, the white striping, the green muscle disease, the drop-dead heart attacks, the dependence on antibiotics, and the susceptibility to gut diseases.

Dr. Margaret Derry, a historian of animal breeding, raised one other issue with the move to slow-growers: it’s uncivilized, more or less. “To say that the idea is to produce animals that take longer to finish and produce less meat and use more feed, I have never heard of that happening before. And I am a historian who knows a fair amount about animal breeding in Northern Europe and North America in the last four hundred years.”

TASTES LIKE

Maybe it comes down to taste. It is gospel in the food-writing business that the consumption of any bird that’s slow-growing, heritage-bred, pasture-raised, and/or Montessori-educated is, by convention, to be treated as a life-affirming accomplishment, and the eating of regular chicken is as depressing as an art film about childhood leukemia set in the dish pit of a Las Vegas Applebee’s directed by Lars von Trier. Michael Pollan, describing a dinner of pasture-raised chicken in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote, “The skin had turned the color of mahogany and the texture of parchment, almost like a Peking duck, and the meat itself was moist, dense, and almost shockingly flavorful… which is to say, I suppose, that it chimed with that capitalized idea of Chicken we hold in our heads but seldom taste anymore.”

Mark Schatzker, who (brilliantly) wrote about slow-growing chicken in his book The Dorito Effect, calls his chapter on commodity chicken “Big Bland.” Of his experience eating a heritage bird, he says, “This was get-up-out-of-your-chair-and-start-dancing fried chicken. It brought on a state of giddiness that verged on the evangelical. You know chicken is good when you want to run down the street telling strangers about it.”

Which, I don’t know, maybe I’m eating chicken wrong. While it doesn’t typically move me to dancing, I can happily down half of a properly seasoned and roasted grocery store chicken in a single, sigh-punctuated go. The promise of slower-growing chicken, though, isn’t just that it’s better for the birds (which it is), or that they don’t get woody breast and green muscle disease (which they don’t), or that they’re easier to raise without antibiotics (which they typically are). It’s that the chicken won’t just taste like chicken.

Stewart-Brown of Perdue Farms, a company that was built on producing and processing commodity chicken in unimaginable volumes, said, “If there’s an opportunity for better taste and eating experience, we’d like to find that,” which is not the sort of thing that vice presidents at vertically integrated, $6.3 billion a year chicken companies usually go around and say. When I mentioned how strange it was, he agreed. “I’m going to say it’s unusual,” adding, “this is not generic chicken.”

Theo Weening, Whole Foods’s global meat coordinator, said of his first experience with David Pitman’s chicken, “It had flavor without adding marinades or a lot of seasonings. It was completely different.”

There’s a fair bit of research backing that up: the older the bird, the bigger the taste. In one of my favorite flavor studies of all time, a pair of French researchers charted chicken flavor, tenderness, and juiciness against days to slaughter and testicular weight. (Pro tip: always buy the chicken with the biggest nads.)

But even some slow-growth proponents admit that the flavor differences between a forty-two-day bird and a fifty-six-day one aren’t always that pronounced—in research that Hubbard has done in the U.S., tasters noted differences only about half the time. How a bird tastes can depend just as much on the breed of chicken, what it ate, how it was raised, and how it was slaughtered. That can really change when you get up above sixty days, when the taste starts to stand out.

Early this winter I drove to a small-scale organic farm that raises slow-growers. The fields were covered in dirty snow, and the last of the flock had been frozen solid for the past couple months. “You wanted a five-pounder, right?” the farmer asked. It had been raised on pasture, he said, and he’d sent it to slaughter at
sixty-three days.

Thawed but uncooked, it looked for all the world like a supermarket job. But after it had been seasoned, roasted crisply golden, and rested a few minutes—after I sliced into the breast and thigh and the juices started running and the smell of it filled my kitchen, the similarities fell away. The color of the leg and thigh meat was darker and the texture denser. The breast meat felt firmer and looked more creamy beige than Styrofoam white. All I could think as I breathed in the steam was that it was somehow richer and more chickeny, in the same way dry-aged beef tastes more strongly of beef. (No, I did not start dancing.) As for the taste, it wasn’t your usual chicken. It was delicious enough that the animal-welfare benefits felt almost beside the point.

No matter why people eat it, slow-growth chicken is coming. As the likes of Compass Group and Whole Foods step up and demand slow-growth chickens, broiler breeders and growers step in to fill demand. David Pitman, out in California, sees that eight years after he first decided slower growers are the future, the rest of the industry has started catching up. He said, “I think this is going to explode.”