Why meat chick­ens are ready to eat in just 6 weeks

This melt­ing plump roast grew to that size from a chick in just six weeks, but it’s noth­ing to do with hor­mones.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS SUE CLARKE

It’s noth­ing to do with hor­mones, and never has been.

For many years, many peo­ple be­lieved one thing about the poul­try in­dus­try: that they use hor­mones and other daily med­i­ca­tions to make the birds grow fast and lay more eggs.

But this isn’t true. In the early 1900s, the only poul­try meat avail­able to the ur­ban pop­u­la­tion were end-of-lay hens and roost­ers that had been fat­tened, a process which took sev­eral months. As a re­sult, chicken meat was a spe­cial treat, only usu­ally avail­able at fes­tive times like Christ­mas.

Some breeds were be­ing de­vel­oped for ei­ther meat or egg pro­duc­tion, but the ma­jor­ity avail­able at the time from the lo­cal butcher were dual-pur­pose birds where the hens were kept for egg lay­ing and their brothers were fat­tened for the ta­ble. The Rhode Is­land Red crossed with the Light Sus­sex was a very pop­u­lar choice as their chicks could be sexed (by feather colour) as soon as they hatched, then seg­re­gated and reared ac­cord­ing to their fu­ture.

The birds were not con­sid­ered big enough for the ta­ble un­til they were fully ma­ture, a process that took a min­i­mum of six months or more. This cre­ated a prac­ti­cal prob­lem; once roost­ers be­come sex­u­ally ma­ture there are is­sues with fight­ing and bul­ly­ing be­tween them, es­pe­cially when they are kept con­fined in a male-only flock. To over­come this sit­u­a­tion the roost­ers were of­ten ‘caponised’ at an early age, a process where the testes are re­moved. The loss of testos­terone pre­vented fight­ing and meant the birds put on more weight, both mus­cle and fat, be­cause they ate more and used far less energy.

Sur­gi­cal cas­tra­tion of roost­ers can be traced back as far as Ro­man times and Shake­speare men­tions capons in As You Like It (writ­ten in 1600). Re­moval of the testes is a proven method of con­trol­ling the sex­ual ac­tiv­ity of sheep, cat­tle and pigs and is car­ried on to this day be­cause the testes are ex­ter­nal on mam­mals, mak­ing the op­er­a­tion much eas­ier to per­form. Sur­gi­cal cas­tra­tion in cock­erels in­volves an in­ci­sion be­tween the ribs of the bird to hook out the testes which lie close to the spine in the mid­dle of the body. It is a prac­tice which is out­lawed these days due to it be­ing bar­bar­i­cally per­formed with­out pain re­lief, fol­low-up med­i­ca­tion or stitches to the in­ci­sion.

When capon­i­sa­tion was out­lawed, over­seas poul­try pro­duc­ers looked for another process. They were rear­ing heavy breeds of poul­try like the Ply­mouth Rock, the Or­p­ing­ton, the Rhode Is­land Red, the Light Sus­sex and the Cor­nish Game but these are all slow-grow­ing, late ma­tur­ing breeds. To speed up the fat­ten­ing process – to save feed, and losses and skin dam­age from fight­ing – they in­jected a hor­mone pel­let into the neck of the young males. NOTE: as ref­er­enced on page 57, as far as ex­ist­ing records go, hor­mones have NEVER been used in NZ.

Ahor­mone is a sub­stance made up of pro­teins and pro­duced by the body in var­i­ous glands, to reg­u­late the body pro­cesses like sex­ual ma­tu­rity and re­pro­duc­tion, and meta­bolic pro­cesses.

There are many dif­fer­ent hor­mones. For ex­am­ple, in­sulin is a hor­mone which con­trols car­bo­hy­drate di­ges­tion, adrenalin stim­u­lates a flight or fight re­sponse, thy­rox­ine stim­u­lates oxy­gen con­sump­tion, metabolis­ing cells and tis­sue, and oxy­tocin is the ‘milk let-down’ hor­mone.

So why have hor­mones and the myths sur­round­ing them be­come such an is­sue with poul­try when they have not been used in NZ at all, for half a cen­tury world­wide, and have been banned in most parts of the world?

Re­search shows pack­ag­ing con­fuses peo­ple in some coun­tries. It may also come down to a TV pro­gramme made many years ago which pur­port­edly showed South Amer­i­can poul­try workers ex­posed to the of­fal of birds which had been chem­i­cally caponised who had de­vel­oped breasts. It’s not known if this story was true or not. If it was, it’s also not known whether it was an iso­lated sit­u­a­tion in an un­reg­u­lated poul­try

| in­dus­try where hor­mones were still be­ing used. These are of­ten mixed up and sub­sti­tuted for each other by peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the dif­fer­ences be­tween them.

Hor­mones are pro­tein-based sub­stances, nat­u­rally pro­duced by the body to con­trol the var­i­ous pro­cesses of growth, sex­u­al­ity, di­ges­tion and meta­bolic bal­ance of nor­mal healthy de­vel­op­ment.

Growth pro­motants are sub­stances, both chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal, that can be used to im­prove growth by su­press­ing bad bac­te­ria (re­duc­ing dis­ease) and aid­ing di­ges­tion (in­creas­ing feed ef­fi­ciency). Pro­bi­otics could be classed in this area, as could ap­ple cider vine­gar.

An­tibi­otics are sub­stances pro­duced by other or­gan­isms – and can be syn­thet­i­cally pro­duced – which can su­press or kill other bac­te­ria, eg peni­cillin, tetra­cy­cline. They were used in the past as a pro­phy­lac­tic, added to feed all the time in case a dis­ease or­gan­ism caused trou­ble. But this meant they acted as growth pro­motants by elim­i­nat­ing the dis­eases that could plague large, in­ten­sive­ly­housed flocks, es­pe­cially gut bugs like sal­mo­nella, campy­lobac­ter, necrotic en­teri­tis and E. coli which can se­verely af­fect di­ges­tion and cause death.

But for the past 40 years, there have been strict con­trols on the use of an­tibi­otics in the poul­try in­dus­try. An­tibi­otics com­monly used in hu­man medicine are dif­fer­ent to the classes of an­tibi­otics used in live­stock, to pre­vent re­sis­tance build­ing up in the hu­man pop­u­la­tion by the indis­crim­i­nate mis­use of an­tibi­otics to treat an­i­mal dis­eases.

All an­tibi­otics must be pre­scribed by a vet, after ex­am­in­ing and di­ag­nos­ing a par­tic­u­lar dis­ease con­di­tion re­quir­ing treat­ment. This ap­plies as much to the small flock owner who has a sin­gle chicken with a health prob­lem as it does for a large com­mer­cial flock with a health prob­lem. On a com­mer­cial poul­try farm where the owner sus­pects there is a prob­lem of some sort, which could vary from a drop in egg

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