By Katie Keiger
Poultry Times staff
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Good intentions do not always yield positive results, and in regards to the poultry industry and the ethics of raising chickens, solutions often create an equivalent consequence.
Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and other animal welfare groups, as well as several news outlets have been raising awareness for years of the negative effects of raising chickens faster. As a solution to the unfavorable attention, several companies that have pledged to the cage-free egg movement, such as Whole Foods and Panera Bread, are also transitioning to slow-growth chickens instead of fast-growth chickens.
However, many of these issues caused by increasing the growth rates of chickens have already been addressed, said the National Chicken Council (NCC). Through DNA mapping and selective breeding, broiler house producers are improving the health conditions of chickens.
“For example, leg problems, due to the growing weight of a modern broiler chicken, are much less prevalent than they were 20 years because farmers and breeders began selecting them for leg strength and overall skeletal health,” NCC said on its Chicken Check In website.
Growth rate is not the only factor contributing to leg and joint issues in chickens. According to a study in 2008 conducted by Bristol University’s Division of Food Animal Science Professor Toby Knowles and his colleagues, 25 percent of chickens raised in broiler houses had poor locomotion, partially caused by high stocking densities and lack of exercise.
Though some slow growth chicken producers do provide their birds with more space, it is not guaranteed that the capacity issues will be solved. The slow growth chicken, or heritage chicken, is not defined by space requirements, but by the breed of bird which requires twice the amount of time to mature.
Organic poultry and cage-free eggs are the only poultry markets that have space requirements which are regulated by the USDA. So far, slow growth chickens are not included in the list of requirements needed for the certified organic seal.
If heritage birds are given the same stocking densities that modern broiler house birds are given then their legs may have even more problems because they have not yet gone through the selective breeding process that faster growing birds have.
Slow growth chickens may not require more space for the actual birds, but to make them requires much more space for feed.
For retailers, Whole Foods and other major food service operators have already made the switch to slow growth chickens, but it’s unclear if the trend will spread further as did the commitments for cage-free eggs.
According to the National Chicken Council, if one third of the chicken industry switched to the slow growth chickens, more than 7.6 million acres, the size of Maryland, would be needed to grow the feed required to sustain the growing consumer demand for chicken. Though, even that would leave the country with a 5.5 billion pound chicken shortage equivalent to 27.5 billion chicken meals.
An additional 1.5 billion birds would be required to produce the same amount of modern chickens if only a third of the market switched over.
All those chickens would produce 28.5 billion pounds of manure a year and need 5.1 billion gallons of water to sustain them.
Fuel for more than 650,000 tractor trailers would be required to transport all the extra feed and resources.
The National Chicken Council said that all of these additional resources would add up to $9 billion dollars in production costs, and that is only if a fraction of producers switched. The costs would not only reflect onto the consumer, but make an environmental impact that could affect more than just the poultry industry.