Mutant Chicken: The Deleterious Effects of Breeding on the Modern Meat Chicken
It is quite likely that every chicken you have ever consumed, either at a restaurant or from a grocery store, came from the Cornish cross. This animal has dominated commercial broiler production since the 1950s. It is a hybrid of the naturally stout, double-breasted Cornish rooster and a white rock hen.
Except, it's not quite that simple.
Rather, a total of four large international companies employ top-of-the-line genetic research to produce a four-way cross from grandparent and parent lines that are continually improved and refined. The result of a highly orchestrated and extremely intensive selective breeding program is an animal custom designed for confinement-based industrial-scale production: capable of an astonishing feed-to-flesh conversion rate, with a greatly exaggerated breast size, scant pure-white feathering to facilitate plucking and leave a clean carcass, and an insatiable appetite: these guys are able to reach a live weight of 5 lbs in 6-7 weeks and are typically slaughtered at 6-8 weeks old (for contrast, a standard layer chicken, so-called "dual purpose" or "heritage" breed, takes up to 20 weeks to reach 5 lbs. See the photo below). These big, meaty suckers are what your standard vertically-integrated giant food conglomerate stuffs into warehouses by the tens of thousands with a 24/7 lighting regime so they will gorge themselves nonstop to produce the prolific, bland, mushy, and exceedingly cheap chicken most of us have grown up with and have known no alternative. Maybe, to you, that sounds like the perfect meat animal. A pinnacle achievement of modern food science: cheap, abundant, quality nutrition for a burgeoning population. But the true price of chicken is steeper than maybe most people realize, though it's mostly borne by the animal (and the environment, but that's not my focus here).
A side-by-side comparison: on the left, a 7-week-old Cornish cross cockerel; on the right a 7-week-old heritage breed Salmon Faverolle cockerel
Such rapid growth takes it toll on the structural and organ systems of the animal: Cornish crosses are highly susceptible to congestive heart failure, heart attacks, heat stroke, respiratory ailments, skeletal problems, and other health conditions, and at the young, tender age of just weeks old. Very few Cornish cross chickens would survive to reproductive age even if they weren't processed for food by their second month of life, not that they can reproduce naturally very well, anyway. Because of their unwieldy conformation, movement is difficult, preventing them from engaging in many natural chicken behaviors. Typical Cornish cross behavior involves a few feet of laborious waddling, before they plop down, breathing heavily, as if exhausted by the effort. Their disproportionately weak legs often get injured or broken under the weight of their ponderous bodies. Generally, if left to their own devices, they will mostly sit in front of the feeder in a rapidly-growing pile of their own feces to the point where sores develop on their breasts and keels, eating themselves literally to death. And they are always ravenous.
In addition to their intrinsic health issues, the pervasive presence of the Cornish cross has made the farmer reliant on commercial hatcheries to obtain chicks, as they can't practically produce and sustain their own Cornish cross flocks and they can't remain competitive in the meat chicken market if they don't raise them. Even assuming the farmer managed to successfully raise the Cornish cross to reproductive age and facilitate reproduction, artificially or otherwise, the offspring would bear little resemblance to their meaty progenitors, because the Cornish cross does not breed true. The time, resources, and knowledge necessary for farmers to develop their own line of Cornish cross is beyond cost prohibitive, especially considering the relatively low market price of conventionally raised chicken, and, at any rate, it is unlikely that even an experienced farmer is going to yield anything rivaling the spectacular growth, conformation, and consistent performance that the meat chicken industry has spent decades and untold millions of dollars perfecting. Why reinvent the wheel?
The Cornish cross is favored by pasture-based operations as well as conventional growers, though the notion of a "free-range" Cornish cross is a bit of a joke. Now, it's true that, with proper management, which includes restricting feed intake and relocating the animals to fresh ground one or more times a day, the incidence of disease and injury can be reduced, but the Cornish cross is just not the best fit for pasture production. Yet, they continue to be the bird of choice in this realm because they are so readily available, the alternatives are few and underwhelming in performance, and, above all, the Cornish cross is simply what the market demands. Consumers expect consistently large carcasses with an abundance of white breast meat produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. If you want to make even a slim profit as a smaller-scale, pastured operation, the choice is clear.
More Sustainable (But Less Profitable) Alternatives
Prior to the mid 20th century, the broiler chicken market was supplied with the males of the standard size dual purpose breeds used for egg production such as the Delaware, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Rock, and others. These breeds are healthy, hardy, and stable. They breed true and are easy to rear. Heck, they have even retained the ability to rear themselves. Imagine that in our modern age of food animal production where rapid growth and cheap production is favored over health, welfare, and reproductive viability! However, these breeds take 16-20 weeks or more to reach a market weight of 5 lbs and all that extra time equals extra feed and labor costs. And in the end, you still have smaller birds that yield much less breast meat, have a lower white to dark meat ratio, and a tendency for toughness. In fact, it's simply not feasible to make any sort of a profit raising dual-purpose chickens for meat unless one can find consumers willing to pay a premium for a smaller, leaner, darker, more gristly bird (though many agree that their flavor is sublime compared to that of the Cornish cross). So, it's quite unlikely that the American chicken industry will be reviving the heritage breed broiler anytime soon.
Another alternatives to the Cornish cross is the so-called "ranger" chicken. This includes the Freedom Ranger (tm), a trade-marked hybrid produced according to France's Label Rouge specification, a labeling program for environmentally sustainable and humane animal agriculture, and other similar hybrids developed for the alternative free-range and pasture production market (red ranger, rainbow ranger, black ranger). The ranger is the meat chicken we at Swingletree Farm have decided to raise. These animals grow faster than the heritage breeds, achieving a live market weight of 5-6 lbs in 10-12 weeks and are double-breasted like the Cornish cross, but because they don't grow quite as rapidly and have a more natural conformation, they have far fewer health issues and fare well under free-range, or pastured production systems. They are active and forage well much like the heritage breed chickens, though some care must be taken to manage their nutrition to completely avoid issues stemming from too rapid growth. Their slower growth, diverse diet, and healthy activity level lends a rich and savory flavor to their meat, similar to the heritage bird, while remaining tender. Though the rangers seems like a reasonable solution to the meat chicken conundrum, they do cost more to purchase and grow out, resulting in meat that's about twice the price of industrially raised Cornish cross meat. In addition, there still remains the problem of self-sufficiency: the rangers are, first of all, another 4-way hybrid that can't be practically reproduced on the farm, and second, is not yet widely available in the U.S. (though, it is becoming more so).
So, while not ideal, the ranger chicken is at least a more humane choice. But, it is really up to American consumers to decide whether to insist on artificially cheap meat produced at the expense of the animal's welfare, or a more sustainable, ethical, and flavorful chicken to savor for the occasional delectable feast.
Anne Fanatico. 2010. Meat Chicken Breeds for Pastured Productions. ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Available at: www.attra.ncat.org
Label Rouge Poultry: http://www.volaillelabelrouge.com/en/home/
Freedom Ranger Hatchery:http://www.freedomrangerhatchery.com/freedom-ranger-chickens.asp