If she’s nervous, the little brown bird does a good job of hiding it.
Sitting cradled in the researcher’s arms, the three-week-old chicken remains perfectly still, even as the woman gently lifts the bird’s right wing. It’s only when the woman ties around her wing a thin strap – the same material used in women’s bras, attaching a "Fitbit"-like device – that the bird moves ever so slightly, burrowing her fuzzy head into the woman’s arm.
Officially, the bird is known in the study as No. 1346. But not in this moment. “Bye, cutie patootie,” the University of Guelph researcher whispers, lowering her to the ground. The bird doesn’t know it, but she is a small part of a much bigger experiment – an attempt by the food industry to move away from the quick-growing “Frankenbird” and toward a "better” bird.
But, as the industry would discover, the task is not as simple as it seems. What determines “better” is a complicated question. And in the case of chickens, experts say, there’s a chance "slow” might not be better.
As consumers become increasingly knowledgeable about food, producers face growing pressure to sell food that not only tastes good, but meets a range of ethical standards too. The push has created scenarios like the one at the University of Guelph – across the country, scientists are collaborating with animal advocates and companies to improve the foods we eat.
But sometimes the obvious solution is not the best one. Sometimes the labels that ease conscientious consumers’ minds – "green,” "natural” or, in this case, “slow” – come with their own hidden costs.
The problem with fast
In the spring of 2016, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), the influential organization that sets animal-welfare standards for some of the world’s largest food companies, announced it wanted to tackle the “quick-growth” chicken issue.
They were concerned about arguments from activists that the chicken industry was creating birds so bloated they could barely stand, let alone move around. Compared with the 1950s, chickens are now three or four times as large, and grown in a fraction of the time.
By 2024, they pledged, GAP-certified companies would have to switch to slower-growing breeds. The announcement included a number of other measures, but the focus was squarely on "slow.” The change, they said, would "dramatically improve chicken welfare.” Within months, some of their biggest partners, including Whole Foods and Compass Group, had pledged to meet the 2024 target.
Underlying it all was a seemingly logical conclusion: If fast-growing breeds have resulted in unhealthy and unhappy birds, then slower-growing ones would mean healthier, happier, more ethical birds. Except, GAP soon learned, "slow” comes with its own challenges.
‘Slow for slow’s sake’
Anne Malleau is GAP’s executive director. When she began hearing some of the criticisms of the GAP proposal, she realized that it may have been premature. "Slow” chickens sounded good, but there was more to the problem than the speed of the birds’ growth.
It wasn’t just that there was no consensus about what "slow” might mean, although that was a factor. Most chickens in Canada are grown to market size, about 4.5 pounds, in five weeks. Would consumers consider breeds that grew in six weeks slow? Seven or eight?
There was also criticism from the chicken industry – GAP was accused of aiming for "slow for slow’s sake,” and of ignoring the gains that genetics companies had already made with some of the most common growth-related problems, like leg, foot and heart issues.
These critics also emphasized that other factors may be more deserving of attention, like housing conditions, but those haven’t made headlines. "I do believe issues like density, feed quality, lighting, ventilation, have a stronger effect on bird welfare,” said Greg Douglas, the vice-president for animal care at Maple Leaf Foods in an interview.
But most troubling of all to Ms. Malleau, who comes from an animal-welfare-science background, was the realization that research to support a switch to slower-growth birds didn’t yet exist. There was ample proof showing the harms of quick growth. But a full analysis of all of the other animal welfare measures on slower-growing breeds, including potential trade-offs, wasn’t yet available. The studies they had used leading up to their initial proposal, they realized, were not as comprehensive as they would have liked.
By the end of the year, they had backed down from their original pledge. They stopped using the word "slow” in their campaign materials, and removed altogether the proposal that growth rate be limited to 50 grams per day.
"Our learning along the way was that growth rate does not guarantee good welfare,” said Ms. Malleau.
“We didn’t want to say ‘This sounds good, or this feels good,'" she said. "We’re committed to making a science-based decision.”
On the ground, the little brown bird chirps a few times. She seems startled by her new accessory, and shakes her feathers a few times to adjust. Within seconds, she hops off to rejoin the flock.
The flock is part of a University of Guelph study to address the issue GAP identified. The $1-million study aims to identify optimal strains that balance both efficiency and health and wellness.
In the giant barn about a ten-minute drive away from the university, Dr. Tina Widowski, the principal investigator on the study, and lead researcher Stephanie Torrey will spend the next year and a half cycling through this strain and about 20 others, ranging from conventional breeds that grow to market size in about five weeks (the vast majority of the chickens sold in grocery stores across Canada are one of two hyper-efficient strains: Cobb 500 and Ross 708), to heritage ones which take almost 17 weeks.
The brown bird was distinguished that day not only by her "backpack,” but also a shock of fuchsia on the top of her head, like a hot-pink wig. The researchers use the pink animal-safe paint to identify females, and blue for the males. Others too have swirls of green, blue, and purple paint to identify individual birds, so they look like they’re dressed in tie-dyed T-shirts.
The study aims to measure not only activity level and common growth-related health issues (leg, foot and heart problems), but also the trade-offs, if any, of switching to different strains. This includes disease resistance, mortality rate and bone strength. They’ll look at factors that are important to the industry and to consumers, like feed efficiency, meat production and meat quality, including moisture and texture.
At the end, they’ll present the study’s findings to GAP and others in the industry, to decide which breeds best suit their needs.
"We, as scientists, will be able to say ‘Strain A had less lameness. Strain B had better disease resistance,’” Dr. Torrey said. "How the marketers or labelling schemes use that data is dependent on their own purview.”
GAP’s backtrack is a rarity, and a welcome one, said Dr. Widowski. Too often, the industry has acted quickly to make changes based on consumers' ideas of “ethical” eating, however misguided they may be, she said.
“Oftentimes," she said, “the decisions in the marketplace are not necessarily based on what the science will say.”
With the growth issue, Dr. Widowski said, there are still many unknowns. She used as an example the concerns about low activity levels with conventional chickens. But whether that’s due to physical limitations, or simply because they’ve been selected over time for sedentary behaviour, is something they’re still measuring.
“Is it because they can’t, or just that they don’t want to?” she said. “Therein lies the animal-welfare issue.”
Concerns from farmers
Beyond animal welfare, the most vocal criticisms of "slow” have come from the industry, concerning the effects on the environment. Transitioning to slower-growing breeds would mean an enormous increase in resources – from feed and land to water, they say.
"While there’s been a push for the last decade or more for an environmental perspective ... going to a slower-growing bird would have a detrimental effect and pull us back on the improvements and the targets that have been met to date,” said Steve Leech, a national-program manager at the Chicken Farmers of Canada.
A report last year from the U.S.-based National Chicken Council found that a transition by just one third of U.S. producers would require an additional one billion gallons of water, and an additional 7.6-million acres of land each year just to grow feed for the birds.
They’re also concerned about cost.
Dave Vandenberg, a chicken farmer in Drayton, Ont., said that slower-growing strains would cost farmers everything from higher heating bills, to additional bedding and wood shavings. Most critically, he said, it would mean the average farmer would require between 25 and 35 per cent more barn space in order to produce the same quantity of chicken.
All of these costs, he said, would translate to higher prices for consumers.
"It’s going to have to come from the consumer at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s the only way to make it feasible.”
At GAP, it’s a concern they take seriously.
"We think we can fix some of the welfare issues we see, but isn’t a bird that’s just for the rich,” said Ms. Malleau.
They’ve since renamed the campaign, to the "Better Chicken” initiative. They’re open to the idea that a "better” chicken may not be a slower-growing strain.
"Maybe it comes out that things aren’t as we thought. Or maybe it comes out that [slower growth] is the criteria,” she said.
“I’m trying not to have any preconceived notion of what that looks like.”