Today, chickens that grow at roughly three times the rate of the chickens our grandparents ate account for more than 99 percent of the chicken meat sold in the United States. The quality of chicken meat has suffered and chicken welfare has paid a terrible price. As consumers have grown more conscious about how their food is produced many have signaled their willingness to pay a premium for birds with less severe health problems raised on higher welfare farms.
Businesses have taken notice and the last six months have seen major foodservice and restaurant companies such as Compass Group, Aramark, Chipotle, Panera, and Starbucks commit to phasing out the fastest growing strains of chickens, often coupling that change with lower stocking densities and requirements that birds have at least some exposure to natural light. While consumer advocates hail these changes as groundbreaking, recently the National Chicken Council (NCC) published a report that attempts to arrest this momentum. The NCC report makes dubious claims, lacks citations for its calculations, is not peer-reviewed, and was written by Elanco, a major feed supplement and pharmaceutical manufacturer. Unsurprisingly, it comes to the peculiar conclusion that it would be better if consumers kept quiet and trusted the wisdom of industrial agriculture.
Consumers are unlikely to do what NCC wants for a number of reasons:
Reason One: Animal Welfare
Dozens of peer-reviewed studies demonstrate a clear link between faster growth and increased problems with animal health and welfare.1Today’s fast-growing chickens and turkeys are sick. They suffer unnecessary and painful problems with skeletal development, heart, and lung function2, obesity,3 and more—all issues that were unheard of in the standard-bred heritage breeds that were the norm prior to the introduction of “hybrid breeding” in the 1950’s. This is why antibiotics and other drugs have become a regular feature of poultry production—factory farming could not exist without them.
Reason Two: Human Health
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year almost a quarter of the people hospitalized from contracting bacterial born illnesses were sickened by eating meat or poultry. Nineteen percent of all deaths related to foodborne illness are caused by poultry—the most deaths of any food category.4
Reason Three: Environmental Degradation
The poultry industry is also a major cause of environmental degradation. A case in point is the Chesapeake Bay, which has been polluted by broiler chicken production from the adjacent Delmarva Peninsula. Maryland and Delaware alone produce roughly 523 million chickens a year, and much of the feces they produce ends up polluting the nation’s waterways.5While slower-growing broilers may require more intensive water and land usage, the true external costs of the overall environmental impact of factory farmed broilers is not acknowledged or addressed from within the industry.
We have a poultry problem in the United States, and it’s not getting any better. Returning to traditional ways of producing poultry may be the only way. As we work to build a post factory farm poultry industry, we work to build a better system not just for animals, but for human health, farmers, and the environment, too.
Consumer Demand for A Better, Healthier, More Humane Food System
Increasingly consumers are demanding greater transparency in the food system. A recent Food Marketing Institute report documents that “consumers increasingly indicate an interest in the way animals are treated…. [W]hen it comes to attributes beyond those that render personal benefits, shoppers prioritize animal welfare second only to employment practices.”6
As evidenced by the increase in demand for certified organic, cage-free, and heritage animal products, many consumers are not only ready but eager to pay a fair price for food raised in ways that protect animal health, public health, and the environment. Smart companies continue to pay attention to farm animal welfare, as reflected in The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare 2016 Report.7This change has been attributed to demand from customers, investors, and forces within the companies themselves. Since the first Benchmark in 2012, the proportion of all companies with a published farm animal welfare policy has increased from 46% in 2012 to 73% in 2016.8
The NCC would do well to face the facts and deliver a product in line with American values, rather than obfuscate and delay the inevitable, as it unsuccessfully attempted with the now well-established trend toward cage-free eggs. Slower-growth and heritage chickens are inevitably part of the broad consumer shift toward higher welfare, and in building a food system that we can all support.