The Chicken of Tomorrow needs to be the Chicken of Yesterday
“The better the breeding, the better the eating,” Frank Perdue declares in an old commercial from Perdue chicken. He walks us through the breeds of chicken the Perdue company has raised throughout its history, listing the relative merits and drawbacks of the Barred Plymouth Rock through the Rhode Island Red, None of them, he claims, are up to his standards of “tender meat, plump breasts, [and] well turned legs.” So he had to develop his own. It is telling that a generation later, the breeds of these chickens are not nearly recognizable enough to be used in a television advertisement. In fact, the general pubic does not distinguish one breed of chicken from the next because they rarely encounter chicken that is not ready to cook or eat. The broiler industry came to rely on uniformity in size, growth rate, and behavior of its chickens in order to maintain a consistent supply for the consumer, and a bird was needed that could meet those specifications.
Beginning in the late 1940’s, A&P Groceries sponsored the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest for the “development of superior meat-type chickens.” The growing chicken industry sought ways to maintain and expand upon this boom by developing a chicken that would appeal to the consumer’s demands. The purpose of the contest was to find a “broader breasted bird with bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs, and layers of white meat,” which grew quickly with a high feed-to-weight conversion – a contrast to the slower growing, leaner hens that had been used mostly as laying hens in years past.
The chicken to come out of the contest victorious was a Cornish and White Rock cross-breed, which has been further refined by the broiler industry over the past few decades for “rapid growth, efficient feed conversion, broad- breastedness, limited feathering (for ease of plucking) and other traits considered desirable for rearing very large numbers of birds in confinement.” Most commercial and pasture raised chickens today are Cornish crosses, with breeding companies (many of them vertically integrated into meat producers) cross breeding to produce specific traits in male and female lines whose offspring is an ideal meat chicken. This crossbreeding also means that the offspring of the resulting chicks will not be true to either parent, protecting the breeding companies’ genetic research. While these crosses serve the meat industry well, they are far from the optimal breed of chicken.
Commercial chickens reach market weight of five pounds live in four to seven weeks; compared to the sixteen weeks it took in the 1950s. The physiological changes include the distribution of muscle mass (most of their weight is now located in their breasts) and the digestive and nervous system shift to give the birds “an insatiable appetite.” This bulky, hungry bird is highly susceptible to stress, cardiovascular failure, skeletal problems, and poor reproductive capabilities. One study showed that a modern chicken’s heart muscle was less developed than a heritage breed chicken of the same age and hypothesized that the “modern selection has diverted resources originally destined to maintain balanced heart growth into increased breast muscle mass.” The same study goes on to link the early development of the chickens’ livers and the increased length of their intestines to their need to metabolize feed quickly.Because these chickens are slaughtered at an early age, most of these health issues pose only a limited problem, but when other farmers raise the birds on pasture, the weak hearts and legs become more apparent since it takes longer to bring them to market weight. These farmers are showing a renewed interest in purchasing heritage breed chicks that are more suited to be raised on pasture.
Heritage chickens are defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as recognized Standard breeds of chicken that are “naturally mating, long lived, and slow growing.” Standard breeds are not crossbred and the offspring breeds are true to the parents, allowing farmers to maintain the genetic lines of their own flocks. Breeds like the Jersey Giant or Columbian Wyandotte can reach market weight in sixteen weeks, while some slower growing birds can take up to 24 weeks. Most of these breeds are also adequate egg producers and will live for up to seven years. They have healthier immune systems and are adapted to life on pasture, including the ability to forage for insects. While they are not as efficient at converting feed to muscle, their hearts grow at a proportional rate to their bodies and their skeletal structures are strong enough to support them.
It is necessary to preserve heritage chickens that are not being farmed by the poultry industry for the same reasons that advocates work to preserve heirloom seeds: biodiversity. Industrial broiler chickens have been bred to grow quickly and efficiently and not do much else. They do not breed, lay, brood, care for their offspring, forage, or grow like chickens have since they were domesticated 8000 years ago. They lack the genetic diversity that would allow them to adapt to a change in their environment. Unlike plants, however, the genes that dictate these traits cannot be preserved inertly in a seed bank. They survive only in living birds and the only way to ensure their continued existence is for farmers raising them. These heritage breeds require increased feed and a longer growing period, meaning that farmers either need government incentives or increased market demand to ensure that they remain economically viable. There is a niche market for heritage chickens and they can sell for a higher price, but that market needs to be expanded. Increasing market demand also brings up a culinary aspect of chicken – as the biodiversity of chicken breeds narrows, we loose variations in chicken flavors. While this loss is unquantifiable, cultural history gets lost when flavors are no longer valued and when chemical additives in fast food replace natural variations in flavor. The philosophical question also needs to be considered: what we view the chicken itself as – an easy source of animal protein for humans or an animal in its own right. Though humans have been subtly altering chicken’s genetics for centuries through domestication and hybridization, it is only in the past few decades that this has resulted in the vast dominance of birds that are not healthy past eight weeks old.