The fresh chicken section, at the grocery store, is easy to navigate.
There is chicken breast and chicken thighs. Sometimes the bone is included, sometimes not.
That simplicity may soon end.
Before long, chicken meat with a “slow growth” label could appear at major grocers, because retailers and restaurant chains, like Whole Foods, Panera Bread and Quizno’s, have committed to source slow growth chickens.
As well, major chicken producers like Perdue Farms have been experimenting with slower growing breeds.
“By the end of the year we will have some in commercial production,” Jim Perdue, chair of Perdue Farms, told Bloomberg last fall.
The market signals indicate that North America could become more like Europe, where slow growth is already part of the trade.
“In the United Kingdom, for example, it’s about five percent of the market,” said Robin Horel, special advisor at the Canadian Poultry & Egg Processors Council.
In the Netherlands the market share is even higher, because grocers only sell slow-growth chicken in their fresh poultry cases.
Consumers and companies are switching to slow growth chicken, partly because animal welfare advocates have railed against conventional broiler production. They claim that chicken breeders have selected birds solely for meat production and ignored the animal welfare consequences.
“Genetically selected to grow fast and develop large, heavy breast muscles — too big for their legs to support — they can experience great pain and suffering,” World Animal Protection said in a news release this summer.
Horel and many others in the chicken industry dispute that claim.
Yes, chickens are bred to produce more breast and thigh meat, but they’re also selected for traits that improve bird health.
“They (breeders) select for 20-odd traits and half of the traits they select for are animal welfare related…. Stronger hearts. Better legs,” Horel said.
There are different definitions of slow growth, but conventional broiler chickens take about 35 days to reach maturity.
“A bird for a fried chicken franchise, will be quite quick, less than five weeks,” said Robin Horel, special advisor at the Canadian Poultry & Egg Processors Council. “A bird for nuggets, or something like that, will be six weeks.”
In comparison a slower growing breed of chicken will require seven, eight or nine weeks before it is ready for harvest.
“What these programs talk about is average growth rate, per day. Grams per day,” said Horel, who is also president of the International Poultry council. “Slow growing birds… there is less grams of growth per day.”
Raising a bird that gains weight more slowly doesn’t make economic sense, because feed represents about 70 percent of the cost of producing broilers.
The Chicken Farmers of Canada has said that slow growth chickens have dramatic consequences for the environment, such as more chickens, more barns, more feed and more manure.
“The U.S. did a study… (and) if only one-third of their producers switched to a slower growing bird, in terms of feed they would need an additional 670,000 tractor trailers on the road, per year,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, Chicken Farmers of Canada director of brand and communications.
For now, scientists haven’t reported on the animal welfare and environmental outcomes of slow growth chickens.
But that is about to change.
Tina Widowski and other researchers from the University of Guelph have begun a $1 million research project, looking at 20 conventional and slow growing breeds of broiler chickens.
“There’s been no comprehensive look at health, welfare, nutrition, environment and meat characteristics,” Widowski said in a news release last fall.
The results of the study won’t come out until late in 2020, Horel said.
In the meantime, it’s possible that more grocers and restaurants will make commitments to buy slow-growth chicken.
If a “slow growth” label soon appears at grocery stores in Canada, chicken farmers might benefit from the additional option, Horel added.
Market research from the egg industry shows that free run eggs, Omega-3 and other labels have boosted egg sales in Canada.
“The majority of Canadians, the majority being over 85 percent, still pick up large, white eggs,” Horel said. “But there are lots of options… and in my opinion when you put out more options… it will raise the whole category. Somebody that buys this type of egg probably won’t buy that kind of egg. But in total there will be a few more eggs sold.”
However, an option doesn’t equate to better animal welfare.
Research shows it’s much more complex than one farm practice and an associated label at a grocery store.
“There is lots of science out there… (that) cage-free eggs are not the best option for animal welfare. I’m guessing we will find the same sort of thing happen, with regards to slow growing broilers,” Horel said.
“What really makes the difference is the management of the farm… it doesn’t matter if (it’s) a conventional system, a free-run system, or organic or anything. A good farmer will have better results than a farmer who isn’t as good.”