Dawn of the slow chicken?

Big poultry producers are turning to slower-growing birds, making it possible to cut antibiotic use and improve animal welfare.

Shrink-wrapped on Styrofoam trays, fried and tucked into a biscuit or made into sausages and cold cuts, almost all chicken has the same origin: It comes from Cornish Cross chickens—white-feathered, chubby-breasted, docile birds that weigh 5 pounds in as little as 5 weeks. It’s a super-fast growth rate—and it isn’t an accident. Americans eat more chicken than any other meat—an average of 93 pounds per person annually—and our outsized appetite for wings, nuggets and boneless, skinless breasts pushed the poultry industry to develop chickens that mature as quickly as possible, through decades of cross-breeding. That rapid growth rate can lead to an array of problems, like leg deformities, with animal-welfare implications. To further fast-track growth and protect against disease, these birds have also been routinely fed small amounts of antibiotics, a practice that started in the 1950s. And while the individual doses may be tiny, they add up to a lot of antibiotics: More than 4.87 million pounds were given to the almost 9 billion chickens raised in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available).

But now, concern has grown over the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, germs that regular antibiotics can’t kill anymore, threatening animal and human health. In response, the meat industry is turning away from widespread use of the drugs, with poultry producers leading the charge. To do so, chicken breeders are reaching back to the genetics that heritage birds possess. Enter chickens like the red-feathered Freedom Ranger Color Yield. This breed naturally matures at a much slower pace—it’s not fully grown until it’s at least 8 weeks old. They have more balanced bodies, tougher bones and stronger immune systems that don’t need constant doses of antibiotics. These chickens require different, more open living conditions, as well—they must be raised on pasture or let out of the barn regularly to roam freely and feed on grass.

Big names in chicken are backing this movement, including Perdue Farms, the fourth-largest poultry producer in the U.S. In fact, more than 90 producers, food-service corporations, fast-food chains and supermarkets have joined an initiative, spearheaded by the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership, to transition to these slower-growing chickens by 2024. “It could be as big as 10 percent of the market,” says Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of the nonprofit Farm Forward, which campaigns for improved animal welfare. That percentage might seem small, but it accounts for hundreds of millions of chickens; and with poultry giants like Perdue in the mix, it represents the forward edge of a change that’s expected to sweep through the industry.

Some of these birds are on the market already. But because pasture-raising doesn’t fit the needs of big corporations that process millions of chickens a week, producers are working on other breeds that can thrive in industrial-sized facilities—keeping in mind that they still require space to run around and flap their wings. In order to scale-up its antibiotic-free poultry production, Perdue, for instance, is currently evaluating 11 different bird types, including heritage hybrids, as part of an -enhanced-welfare program that the company created when it turned away from routine antibiotic use.

It’s an encouraging step. And while meat from birds like the Color Yield is in short supply right now, there’s already a market for it from coast to coast. In Brooklyn, wholesaler Watkins Poultry, which caters to markets and restaurants, sells more than 6,000 of the chickens each week—and Pasture-bird, a southern California company, purveys about 5,000 slow-growth chickens weekly to wholesalers and restaurants.

Birds with these heritage -genetics look—and taste—different than standard birds. They don’t have the muscular defects that their fast-growing cousins can develop, which can affect the texture of the meat. They also have smaller breasts, and because they exercise so much, they have more muscular thighs and dark-meat rosy flesh. The result: they taste intensely chicken-y. Combine that with production practices that benefit both the birds, and us and it’s a change worth crowing about.

Image: Photo of the Freedom Ranger Color Yield chicken courtesy of Freedom Ranger Hatchery.

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