Dining

No Spring Chicken

Whole Foods shifts to slower-growing chickens and puts the spotlight on an underrepresented animal welfare issue
Slow-Growing Chickens
Photo: Courtesy of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch

Scrutiny of the poultry industry has become a national conversation in recent years, thanks in large part to a focus on eliminating dangerously crowded coups and cramped cages. With state-level legislation mandating cage-free eggs and the recent flood of declarations by fast-food giants and major food corporations to move toward cage-free eggs, poultry welfare is no longer a fringe environmental movement. A recent announcement by Whole Foods puts another important issue on center stage: the alarmingly fast pace at which chickens grow nowadays.

Over the last century, poultry breeders have been crossbreeding chickens to grow at faster rates. As NPR explains, the broiler chicken of today "grows to twice the size in half the time" as a bird "of yesteryear." Today, chickens live on average 48 days, growing to be about six pounds, when a century ago, it took them more than 100 days to reach three pounds.

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While the National Chicken Council champions the unnaturally fast growth, calling it efficient and cost effective, because birds require less food in their shorter life spans, animal welfare activists beg to differ.

Fast-growing chickens can get so big and heavy on top that their legs can't support their body weight, leading not only to broken bones but also to heart problems.

Whole Foods announced a few weeks ago that it would be moving away from these fast-growing breeds toward slower-growing chickens, thanks to new standards set by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), which certifies the animal welfare practices of the organic market's producers. Per GAP's new standards, Whole Foods will move toward selling only a slower-growing breed of chicken by 2024.

The organic market's decision casts the limelight on an issue many restaurant chefs around New York City have already been practicing, both out of concern for animal welfare and for taste. A host of the city's trendiest restaurants have embraced the Sasso chicken, a slow-growth, outdoor-raised chicken breed from France. Others, like the newly opened Le Coq Rico, have their own methods of finding slower-growing birds.

Photo: Courtesy of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch

Chef Antoine Westermann of Le Coq Rico spent a year traveling around Upstate New York and Pennsylvania to find the right birds and establish connections with farmers who could provide them to his restaurant.

He was impressed both by what he found on his search outside of NYC and by the responsible sourcing—poultry or otherwise—that his peers in the city do.

"The industry is very conscious to the progress of animal welfare. Chefs want to share the best quality of produce, it's in there DNA, and so all chefs need to get in touch with farmers. In NYC, they do a wonderful job."

French-born Westermann recognizes the reason that "in France, like everywhere else in the world, chickens generally live only 40 to 60 days, simply because it costs so much more for the farmer and, subsequently, the consumer to do it differently."

"Letting birds live longer has an influence on the price; it requires more food and more time from the farmer, more infrastructure for living outside," he acknowledges.

But Westermann believes that "when an animal has a good life, you feel it in the meat," and life span is important to him. His free-range birds live at least 90 days. On Mauer's Mountain Farms in the Catskills, which provides guinea fowl to Le Coq Rico, Jennifer Grossman raises birds for 130 days.

As Westerman says, "Things that good cannot be made quickly."

With chefs like Westermann and Whole Foods' new commitment, will slow-growing chickens be the next cage-free eggs?

Find Le Coq Rico here, or in our DINE app.

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