broiler chickens Credit: buhanovskiy/iStock/Thinkstock.

New study reveals negative implications of raising 'slower-growing' chickens

National Chicken Council calls for balance among animal care, environmental effects and economic impact.

The topic of using "slower-growing" broiler chicken breeds in U.S. poultry production continues to gain momentum, but a study released this week by the National Chicken Council (NCC) details the environmental, economic and sustainability implications of raising slower-growing chickens, revealing a sharp increase in chicken prices and the use of environmental resources — including water, air, fuel and land.

As such, NCC is urging consumers, the foodservice and retail industries and non-governmental organizations to invest in studying the impact in the U.S. of the expanding market for slower-growing broiler chickens. Additionally, the group is calling for more research on the health impact of chickens' growth rates to ensure that the future of bird health and welfare is grounded in scientific, data-backed research.

"The National Chicken Council and its members remain committed to chicken welfare, continuous improvement and respecting consumer choice — including the growing market for a slower growing bird," said Dr. Ashley Peterson, NCC senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. "However, these improvements must be dictated by science and data — not activists' emotional rhetoric — which is why we support further research on the topic of chicken welfare and growth rates."

Environmental implications

In assessing a transition to a slower-growing breed, the environmental impact is an important component often left out of the equation, NCC said. If only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to a slower-growing breed, nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced — requiring a tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption. This would amount to:

  • Additional feed — It will take enough feed to fill 670,000 more tractor trailers on the road per year, using millions more gallons of fuel annually.
  • Additional land — An additional 7.6 million acres of land per year will be needed to grow the extra feed (corn and soybeans), amounting to roughly the size of the entire state of Maryland.
  • Additional manure output — Slower-growing chickens will also stay on the farm longer, producing an additional 28.5 billion lb. of manure annually. That's enough litter to create a pile on a football field that is 27 times higher than a typical football stadium.
  • Additional water — It will require an extra 5.1 billion gal. of drinking water per year for the chickens (excluding the additional irrigation water that would be required to grow the additional feed).

Economic implications

If the industry does not produce the additional 1.5 billion birds to meet current demand, the study found that the supply of chicken would be reduced significantly — equating to 27.5 billion fewer chicken meals per year.

The additional cost of even one-third of the industry switching to slower-growing birds would be $9 billion, which could have a notable financial impact on foodservice companies, retailers, restaurants and, ultimately, consumers. This will put a considerable percentage of the population at risk and increase food instability for those who can least afford to have changes in food prices, NCC said.

A reduction in the U.S. chicken supply would also result in a decreased supply to export internationally, and U.S. chicken is an important protein for families in Mexico, Cuba, Africa and 100 other countries.

NCC's commitment to chicken welfare, consumer choice

"Slower growing," as defined by the Global Animal Partnership, is equal to or less than 50 g of weight gained per chicken per day, averaged over the growth cycle, compared to current industry average for all birds of approximately 61 g per day. This means that, in order to reach the same market weight, the birds would need to stay on the farm significantly longer, NCC said.

“For decades, the chicken industry has evolved its products to meet ever-changing consumer preferences. Adapting and offering consumers more choices of what they want to eat has been the main catalyst of success for chicken producers.”

Peterson added, "We are the first ones to know that success should not come at the expense of the health and well-being of the birds. Without healthy chickens, our members would not be in business."

In fact, NCC said all current measurable data — livability, disease, condemnation, digestive and leg health — show that the national broiler flock is as healthy as it has ever been.

"We don't know if raising chickens slower than they are today would advance our progress on health and welfare, which is why NCC has expressed its support to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Assn. for research funding in this area," Peterson said. "What we do know is there are trade-offs and that it is important to take into consideration chicken welfare, sustainability and providing safe, affordable food for consumers. There may not be any measurable welfare benefits to the birds, despite these negative consequences. Research will help us identify if there are additional, unforeseen consequences of raising birds for longer."

In 2017, NCC will also be updating its Broiler Welfare Guidelines, last updated in 2014, and will have the guidelines certified by an independent third party. The guidelines will be updated with assistance from an academic advisory panel consisting of poultry welfare experts and veterinarians from across the U.S.

"NCC will continue to be in the business of providing and respecting consumer choice in the marketplace," Peterson concluded. "Whether it is traditionally raised chicken, slower-growing breeds, raised without antibiotics or organic, consumers have the ability to choose products that take into account many factors, including taste preference, personal values and affordability."

Study methodology

The study was conducted from August to September 2016 by Elanco Animal Health, in consultation with Express Markets Inc., using a simulation model that estimates the impact of slow-growing broilers on feed, land, water utilization, waste/manure generated and production cost. The model used average values of conventional versus slow-growing broilers for mortality, growout days, feed conversion, days of downtime and placement density. A full copy of the study is available here.  

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