The US chicken industry is preparing to ramp up production of slow-growing birds after an influential animal welfare group said it would only certify such varieties.
Global Animal Partnership, a food rating program that has been awarded a five-step wellness rating by Amazon.com’s Whole Foods, on Wednesday released a list of 11 breeds of chicken that meet its higher standards for certification, down from 27.
Certified birds gain weight slower than conventional birds that make up more than 90% of the current market, and have fewer health and meat quality problems, according to a study commissioned by GAP. More than 200 companies including Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. with Better Chicken commitments to comply with GAP by 2026.
Change will not come easily. The listed bird breeds make up less than 5% of production, so US poultry producers will need to significantly expand their slow-growing chicken operations to meet demand, according to Anne Mallo, executive director of GAP. She said companies participating in the program can now begin planning how to secure supplies and market the meat.
“It’s a balance between what people want and what’s available,” Mallo said in an interview. “The way this initiative is going to work is if people start switching as quickly as possible.”
There are other challenges, too. Switching to slower-growing birds means higher production costs and higher price tags for consumers. Americans are already facing food price inflation, and there has been a shortage of chicken recently due to demand from restaurants and meat factory closings during the Covid-19 outbreak. Traditional chicken producers also say that feeding these birds requires more food and water.
However, Americans are increasingly concerned with animal welfare, and are more than ever willing to pay for food with ethical claims. GAP’s goal is not only to improve animal welfare but also to reinvent broiler chickens in the modern era. Today’s chickens can convert feed into muscle mass very quickly, which produces meat efficiently but can also lead to difficulties, such as birds that struggle to walk.
Strains that led to the cut include those developed by Cooks Venture, Aviagen, Hubbard and Cobb-Vantress, which is owned by Tyson Foods Inc. , the largest producer of chicken in the United States. Notably absent from the list are the most commonly used traditional birds.
Mallo said consumers should start seeing small numbers of these approved animals on the market, before there is a bigger spike later.
Matt Wadee, CEO of Cooks Venture, said the company’s leading approved strain is “the culmination of more than 12 years of research, and we are proud that the GAP study demonstrates the strength of our strain.” The company’s biggest assets, he said, are genes that emphasize “health and flavour.”