Changes ahead

Chicken pro­duc­ers weigh­ing de­mand for slow-grow push.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - NATHAN OWENS

It’s no se­cret that chick­ens bred for meat grow re­ally fast.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Chicken Coun­cil, broiler chick­ens ma­ture 60 per­cent faster and weigh two times more than they did nearly a cen­tury ago. But af­ter years of breed­ing to sell the most op­ti­mal broiler chick­ens, some big com­pa­nies are tak­ing a step back to be vi­able in the fu­ture.

At this week’s Chicken Marketing Sum­mit in Asheville, N.C., in­dus­try lead­ers touched on op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges that big poul­try com­pa­nies are fac­ing, such as marketing to mil­len­ni­als, adapt­ing to an­i­mal wel­fare­minded con­sumers and cost im­pli­ca­tions for meet­ing con­sumer de­mands.

A re­cur­ring topic of con­tention was whether poul­try com­pa­nies should look into pro­duc­ing “slow-growth” chick­ens, Tom Su­per, spokesman for the Na­tional Chicken Coun­cil, said Tues­day.

Ken Shea, Bloomberg se­nior an­a­lyst of food and bev­er­ages, said the move­ment to­ward slow-growth chicken is a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the all­nat­u­ral and free-range mod­els.

Cur­rently, Per­due Farms is the only large U.S. chicken com­pany that an­nounced it’s re­search­ing “slow-growth” chicken pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Per­due’s 2016 re­port, the com­pany’s goal was to ad­dress broiler chicken growth rates that cause dis­com­fort to birds.

The Mary­land-based com­pany said Mon­day that it has raised and pro­cessed two slower-grow­ing breeds for

small bird pro­duc­tion. The com­pany said in its Com­mit­ment to An­i­mal Care Re­port that it cross­bred slower-grow­ing roost­ers with con­ven­tional hens, raised the prog­eny and pro­cessed them for com­mer­cial sale.

Per­due is search­ing for the right growth rate, largely be­cause of re­tail in­ter­ests. Last year, Whole Foods and Pan­era Bread an­nounced they wanted sup­pli­ers to shift to­ward slower-grow­ing broiler chick­ens in re­sponse to an­i­mal-wel­fare con­cerns.

An­i­mal-wel­fare ac­tivists say faster-grow­ing birds are prone to mo­bil­ity is­sues be­cause of weight.

A com­mon myth is that broiler chick­ens are larger be­cause of an­tibi­otic in­jec­tions and ad­di­tives, Su­per said. The in­creased growth rates and sizes seen in broiler chick­ens to­day are from years of breed­ing, he said.

The Na­tional Chicken Coun­cil dis­agreed that grow­ing birds fast causes health de­fects or an­i­mal suf­fer­ing, but if con­sumer de­mand spiked for a slower-grow­ing bird, the coun­cil would lis­ten, Su­per said.

“If our cus­tomers want a chicken that grows slower, we’ll do it, but we want them to have the facts,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Chicken Coun­cil study re­leased in Jan­uary, if one-third of U.S. broiler pro­duc­tion shifted to slower-grow­ing breeds, then nearly 1.5 bil­lion more birds would be needed to pro­duce the same amount of meat that’s cur­rently pro­duced.

The study cited ad­di­tional costs for the farmer and com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing in­creased water con­sump­tion, more feed re­quire­ments, ad­di­tional land and more ma­nure pro­duced. It also would mean fewer flocks for farm­ers per year, which would be re­flected in what con­sumers pay for the prod­uct.

Martin Thoma, prin­ci­pal of the Thoma Thoma marketing firm, said that from a con­sumer stand­point, mil­len­ni­als have proved to be more so­cially con­scious and will­ing to pay more for prod­ucts in line with their val­ues.

Ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search data, about 6 in 10 U.S. adults younger than 30 are more likely to buy or­ganic-la­beled pro­duce, be­cause they be­lieve it’s the health­ier op­tion.

“Con­sumer per­cep­tion is re­al­ity,” Thoma said. “And if they think food is bad, they will move away from the prod­ucts.”

Tyson didn’t com­ment on whether it is ex­per­i­ment­ing with slow-growth chick­ens.

AP/KELLY P. KISSEL

Nine-day-old chicks eat a mix of corn and soy­bean and drink water in­side a chicken house north of Plumerville in June. “Slow-growth” chicken pro­duc­tion was a topic this week at the Chicken Marketing Sum­mit in Asheville, N.C.

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