The National Chicken Council (NCC) recently released a study that explored the potential environmental and economic impact of adopting slower-growing strains of broilers. In its analysis, the NCC estimates that transitioning just one-third of current chicken production to slower-growing breeds would result in significant increases in the amount of feed, land, and water needed for production—leading to subsequent rises in both manure output and chicken prices.
The study comes as food companies—including Compass Group, Aramark, and Panera Bread — shift their supply chains to slower-growing breeds. The intent in using slower-growing breeds is to introduce genetics that put less pressure on their bodies and immune systems, afford them the ability to express natural behaviors, and reduce the negative health risks associated with fast-growth, such as heart attacks and lameness.
Faults of the study
While the study’s estimates seem striking, a look beneath the surface reveals a lack of transparency about its methodology, at best, and deeply flawed math, at worst.
First, the study offers little to back up its conclusions: it cites only 13 references (the first two of which cite page numbers leading to irrelevant information on the removal of antibiotics and the effects of various feed additives on metabolism and nutrition), is not peer-reviewed, does not list its authors, and does not appear to cross-reference data used in calculations.
Second, many of these calculations were made on the basis of some misleading assumptions. For example, the study’s ‘Primary Data’ section states that slow growth birds would have the same mortality rate as their fast growth counterparts. But the NCC later estimates that adopting slower-growing breeds would result in upwards of 72.4 million ‘additional on-farm deaths,’ far more than the rate cited in the primary data would account for. These figures directly contradict each other—and in fact, scientific, peer-reviewed studies indicate that slower-growth birds actually have lower mortality rates.
Third, the study compares apples and oranges. It factors in a decrease in stocking density for slow growth birds, but not for faster-growing breeds. While this is of course important for broiler welfare, it distorts the direct breed comparison.
But the study’s most significant oversight is that it fails to account for consumers, who are increasingly opposed to buying chickens raised in poor living conditions and who suffer as a result of their genetics.
“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,” said Dr. Ashley Peterson, NCC senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.
Peterson is exactly right. Consumers have proven that they are willing to pay more—and do pay more—for farmed animals raised according to higher welfare standards. The latest Mintel Poultry-US November 2016 report found that “consumers are growing more conscious of how their foods are produced and many are seeking a more ethical product” and that “this interest in more ethical poultry products is translating into sales: while total sales of poultry are down, many of the brands that are performing well feature these types of ethical claims.”