How did the Chicken Cross the ‘Breed’ Road?
Chicken – The familiar joke, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ and the answer ‘To get to the other side’ – first appeared in an 1847 edition of The Knickerbocker, a New York City monthly magazine. Since then, the joke has been altered in many creative ways, with many a creative answer – but about four years ago a study came out, which did not receive much laughter and had many people scratching their heads.
The question arose, ‘How did the chicken grow so big?’ and the answer was somewhat disconcerting to some. The chicken we know today is not the same chicken our grandparents or great-grandparents knew. In fact, today’s chickens are at least 400% bigger than they were in the 1950’s.
The reason is not growth hormones, as many might presume, but rather ‘selective breeding’. According to a 2014 study by University of Alberta (published in the Journal of Poultry Science), in 1957 chickens weighed an average of 905 grams and by 1978 the average was 1,808 grams. Today, chickens weigh in at an unprecedented 4,202 grams. The study compared the growth of three different types of chickens to understand how the process of selective breeding worked.
They found ‘massive genetic differences as a result of selective breeding by raising chicken breeds from different eras under exact same conditions’. The study concluded that the chickens – all who were of the same age and fed the same type and amount of food, showed a remarkable difference. The 2005 breed had grown on average, over four times as heavy as the 1957 breed.
According to ‘Modern Farmer’, a quarterly American magazine devoted to agriculture and food, it all started in 1948 when the US supermarket chain known as A&P (in conjunction with the USDA), held a contest they called the ‘Chicken of Tomorrow – inviting poultry farmers from all over the nation to develop ‘superior meat-type chickens’. The chickens with the most white meat, as well as bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs and that grew the fastest’ – would be crowned the winners.
The crossbreed of the two winners, resulted in what is known as the ‘Arbor Acres’ breed, the ‘grandparents’ of most of the commercial chicken eaten worldwide today.
To pluck at a few more feathers, consumption of chicken has grown exponentially over the years. We now eat more than three times as much since the ’50s. To keep up and feed into the demand, chickens are bred more cost-efficiently by shortening the production cycle and cutting costs. According to data from the National Chicken Council in Washington, not only does it take less than half the feed to get the same amount of meat, but it now takes less than half the time for a newly-hatched chicken to be ready for the market – from 16 weeks in 1925 to less than 7 weeks since the 1990’s.
But there is a big price being paid. To do so, most commercial ‘broiler chickens’ are raised to reach their slaughter weight as fast as possible. They are confined to sheds, crowded wall to wall where they can barely move around and are overfed – to the point where they often collapse under their own weight. Add in the antibiotics used by most commercial farmers to enhance growth – and these creatures suffer greatly their whole life until they are tossed unceremoniously like feed bags towards their deaths.
Animal advocates have been crying out about this for years and have helped to bring attention to this issue. It has resulted in greater public awareness and some improvements, but the practice continues with no real end in sight. What is has led to, is a growth in organic and free-range poultry farming, where even though the costs are significantly more to both producer and consumer, it is a more responsible and respectful development to the farming of living creatures.
Were you aware of how selective breeding has genetically effected chickens? Do you or would you consider eating poultry from more ‘responsible’ or organic farms? Or are you a vegan and already abstain from consuming any animal products?
To read the entire University of Alberta study.
Bonnie Wurst – firstname.lastname@example.org