When people search for humane chicken their minds usually focus on one thing, access to the outdoors aka is it free range or pasture raised? The thing is that this doesn’t actually matter all that much when looking at the big picture. If you start with a genetically unhealthy animal then raising it outdoors will do little to improve its life. I’d much rather eat a genetically healthy chicken raised in a barn than a badly bred free range bird. Taking what are called hybrids and raising them naturally is the equivalent of planting a GMO seed of corn in an organic field and calling it organic… it just doesn’t make sense.
So what is a hybrid? In the 1940’s scientists figured out how to maintain single trait animals through specialized forms of inbreeding, something wholly impossible in nature. These inbred lines are then crossed with each other to create the modern day Cornish Cross hybrid. Breeders must maintain a flock of at least 100,000 birds produce these types of chickens. The upside of these animals is that they grow much faster and more efficiently than normal chickens. A hybrid chicken grows 3 times faster while eating 3 times less feed than a heritage chicken. That is like a human growing to be the size of a 21 year old while only being fed lunch for 7 years. As you might imagine, this has some serious impacts on these animals. Crosses suffer greatly, taste bland and provide inferior nutrition. The practice of breeding them destroys genetic diversity while concentrating power in the hands of a few large corporations that hold those genetic lines.
Hybrids are bred to have fast growing muscles but their hearts, legs and bones are less important to breeders so those body parts always lag behind. Cornish Crosses regularly go lame, die of organ failure and fracture bones more easily. They also have very week lungs and struggle to breath in even mild heat. I’ve met pastured Cornish Cross farmers that have lost ¼ or ½ of their flock during a heat wave and have personally seen young hybrids struggling to breath in the heat of a Colorado summer. Not only that, a pastured Cornish Cross lives such a short life that the maximum time it is even able to spend outdoors is about 3 weeks, that is less than half of it's life.
Of all the issues these birds have the worst problems occur in the parent stock. Crosses are bred to be slaughtered at a young age, long before they reach sexual maturity. There must also be parent stock to provide new chicks and these birds have to live to full sexual maturity, which has disastrous consequences for them. These parents are often specially bred to overeat but once they stop growing they need to be taken off food so they literally don’t eat themselves to death but their drive to consume food is so strong that they seem to go crazy without the ability to constantly eat. The list of horrors experienced by these poor creatures goes on and on. A free range hybrid will spend a scant few weeks on pasture while its parents spend their whole lives cooped up in some freaky factory farm going crazy.
On the other side of the coin we have standard bred birds, which are commonly today referred to as heritage chickens. Instead of being engineered for fast growth or overeating they’re bred to live long and healthy lives outdoors. From bitter cold to 100 degree weather, heritage chickens can stay robust, energetic and healthy through it all. Standard bred birds have balanced fat profiles, higher levels of protein and a more intense and diverse range of flavors. Instead of having only one type of chicken available, as is the case with hybrids, with heritage chicken there are multiple breeds and within each one there are four classes of chicken based on age. While the terms broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing fowl mean little when buying hybrids, with standard bred chicken each term represents a different age group that cooks and tastes very different.
So if heritage is so great why isn’t there more of this stuff out there? Two words: intense industrialization. The chicken has been industrialized more than any other animal and this has changed it from an expensive special occasion dish to the everyday meat it is today. Not only did this process change price point but it also altered look and flavor. Standard bred birds have smaller breasts, longer bodies and often sport colored feathers. While most with an even slightly adventurous pallet love these birds some find the real life chicken flavor too much. But the greatest thing holding this movement back might just be availability.
Frank Reese is an iconic heritage poultry farmer who maintains the greatest wealth of knowledge and largest breeding stocks of well-bred meat birds in the world. His small Kansas farm is the literal Noah’s ark of standard bred poultry and he is the only farmer in the world to produce USDA certified heritage stock. Frank saved several breeds of turkey from extinction and has been able to help spark a resurgence in the heritage turkey market. But chicken’s perception as cheap everyday meat has stunted growth, which has led to Frank still being virtually the only game in town. He is one of the last master heritage poultry breeders left and much of his knowledge is in danger of being lost. Like heritage, kosher is a niche meat which already costs more. That along with some other factoors makes kosher poultry's entrance into the heritage market very difficult. It seems that other than a small run of turkeys in 2009 commercial kosher heritage poultry has been wholly unavailable for at least the last 50 years time.
Chicken used to cost as much as beef and if we want to it eat ethically we must re-align not only our perception of its cost, but also how to cook it and what it tastes like. Why should chicken taste bland and cost so much less than salmon, beef and all the other animal protein we consume? The reality is that it shouldn’t and it only does because of the inhuman and disdainful ways in which we’ve altered their genetics. Yes free-range practices are nice, and organic feed is great but all that is overshadowed when one doesn’t take genetics into account.
About the blog:
Welcome to The Kosher Omnivore's Quest! My old blog on kosher slaughter, kosher meat, and animal welfare. For new content check out my new website, The Kosher Cut™. There you'll find: blog posts about shechita and related topics, educational slaughter presentations, kosher slaughter training, and a selection of high quality professional kosher slaughter equipment.