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News Icon 9/8/2020

On Tuesday, researchers at the University of Guelph published findings from a highly-anticipated study examining the welfare outcomes of different breeds of chickens raised for meat—and the results confirm long-standing concerns about the fast-growing genetics of factory-farmed birds.

The study, which represents two years of comprehensive research covering 16 different breeds, showed that faster-growing, industry-standard breeds of chickens demonstrated poor welfare outcomes across all tests performed. These findings not only prove that breeding birds for rapid growth—as the industry has done for decades—is detrimental to their welfare, they also indicate a pressing need for an industry shift to slower-growing genetics.

Researchers performed tests measuring health, activity, physiology, and physical discomfort—and in all cases, the fast-growing breeds under-performed their slower-growing counterparts. Overall, industry-standard birds experienced higher instances of serious, likely painful health issues associated with low activity and poor movement, like footpad dermatitis, hock burn lesions, muscle tissue damage, and heart problems.

The study was carried out under highly controlled conditions, but results also suggest that welfare outcomes for fast-growing breeds could be even worse in real-world settings. As the most farmed animal in America at nine billion per year, chickens are affected by detrimental factory farming practices on a huge scale—and this new research confirms that their own genetics play a critical role in their suffering.

Most notably, Guelph researchers found that faster-growing breeds showed higher incidences of both woody breast and white striping—phenomena associated with potentially painful muscle conditions that not only signify suffering, but degrade the texture, nutrition, and overall quality of the meat, itself. Chicken breast with white striping indicates higher fat and lower protein, and meat affected by woody breast is tough, chewy, and difficult to eat. A newer defect is even more disgusting—dubbed “spaghetti meat,” it gives raw chicken breast a slimy, stringy texture that easily pulls apart. All three of these conditions are now so common, the poultry industry is losing an estimated $200 million annually in defective product.

But rather than deal with the problem at its source—the dangerous, fast-growing genetics of the chickens raised on factory farms—the industry is choosing profits over principle and concealing the problem from consumers.

Last year, we told you about the USDA’s recommendations for meat companies dealing with these inconvenient truths, which included deceptive tactics like trimming fillets to disguise the problems, and grinding up affected meat to use it in processed products like nuggets, hot dogs, or sausages. In other words, hide the evidence rather than put in the work needed to fix the problem.

And now it gets worse: Not only is the USDA—the agency in charge of regulating industrial agriculture and protecting consumers—telling the industry how to hide these defects from consumers, it’s now using $300,000 in American tax dollars to finance a project intended to help the industry do it even more effectively.

“If we can convert these myopathies into processed products, like sausages or hot dogs, we can get just as much value as a normal breast fillet,” said Harshavardhan Thippareddi, the John Bekkers Professor of Poultry Science in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) at the University of Georgia, the institution tasked with running the study. “We are trying to optimize how much woody breast, spaghetti meat, or white striping can be put into these kinds of sausages and still get a good, high-value product.”

The USDA-backed factory farming industry is trying to trick their own customers into buying degraded products from chickens whose own genetics likely caused them to suffer from painful muscle defects—all while new research confirms that changing those genetics is the key to both higher welfare and a better product. With several slower-growing breeds available, it’s high time that meat companies stop cutting corners and do the right thing for animals and consumers alike.

Stay tuned for more ways to take action for chickens, and learn more about the University of Guelph’s groundbreaking new study here.