The Race to Produce a Slower-Growing Chicken

The co-founder of Blue Apron is banking on a new model for bringing pasture-raised chicken to the masses. But carving out a niche in a complex, crowded market won’t be easy. 



On this Arkansas chicken farm, when the public tour starts at dawn, the doors to the chicken barns are closed to keep out night-time predators. Then, the doors are thrown open and there’s a rush of feet and feathers as thousands of chickens run, flap, and jump to reach the pasture. Soon, visitors are standing in a sea of pecking, clucking birds.

The experience is meant to drive home a point: In an industry dominated by birds that have been engineered to be too top-heavy to walk—forget about jumping or flying—these athletic chickens are unique. The 800-acre wooded farm, owned by the new food company Cooks Venture, aims to fundamentally change the way chickens are farmed.

Cooks Venture is one of several players angling to revolutionize the chicken industry by combining slower-growing chicken genetics, unrestricted access to lush pasture, and attention to soil and the ecosystem. And it wants to do so at a scale much larger than others, meant to one day rival America’s top poultry companies.

Producing slower-growing chicken on pasture, in numbers that can feed millions of Americans of all economic means, is a tall order. It’s a radical departure from how modern chickens are raised, and there is no definition of what exactly “slow growth” means. No one knows whether consumers will accept their higher price tag. Given the challenges and uncertainties, only a few companies have attempted this model in recent years—and some critics don’t believe that their slow growth approach goes far enough to protect critical heritage poultry genetics.

Cooks Venture says it has found a happy medium that can change chickens’ lives without costing consumers too much. “There’s a misconception that growing good, healthy food to scale costs a lot more money,” said founder Matthew Wadiak. “If people are willing to pay a dollar or two more—the cost of a coffee at Starbucks—we can create a better growing system, and a chicken that tastes good, is healthy, and has a good life.”

Wadiak co-founded Blue Apron, the nation’s largest meal kit company, in 2012. He stepped down a month after the company went public in 2017. Like other meal kit services, Blue Apron has lost popularity, with its value dropping by 90 percent in the last two years. Just this week, it was reported that the company may be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. It’s unclear whether pasture-raised chickens will be an easier sell to the American public.

Matthew Wadiak Cook's Venture

Matthew Wadiak, Cook’s Venture founder. Photo by Chris Montgomery.

Distressed, Fast-Growing Chickens

Up until the middle of the last century, chickens of myriad breeds were raised mostly in backyards and on small local farms. They were dual purpose, kept for both eggs and meat. But as farmers began to specialize in the production of “broilers”—plumper birds raised specifically for meat—the industry became increasingly dominated by larger companies that controlled all stages of the production process.

In 1952, broiler production surpassed farm chickens as the number one source of chicken meat in the U.S. Within just a decade, 90 percent of all broilers would come from large integrated operations. Today, that percentage has climbed to 99 percent, according to the National Chicken Council.

The modern broiler industry’s rapid rise and prosperity came thanks to several advances, including the ability to add supplements and medication to chicken feed, from Vitamin D to antibiotics. Shutting chickens indoors allowed for complete control over their environments.

But the most consequential advance, the one that transformed the chicken into a full-fledged commodity, was genetic selection. Over the past few decades, poultry breeding companies created the most economic, fastest-growing, corpulent bird by selecting for certain genetic traits. They repeatedly bred Cornish Cross strains to grow more white meat in the breast with less feed. A typical broiler today reaches the desired 5-6 pounds of live weight in just about 42 days; it grows twice as fast, twice as large, on half the feed than a broiler did about 70 years ago.

These efficiencies have led to chicken becoming plentiful, cheap, and ubiquitous on dinner plates; its consumption has more than tripled since the 1960s and it’s the number one meat eaten by Americans today. In 2018, more than 9 billion broiler chickens were produced in the U.S., where consumers eat more chicken than anyone else—more than 93.5 pounds per capita in 2018.

But the broiler’s success has come at a steep price for the birds. In the first few weeks of life, their growth outpaces their skeletal system and organ development. The birds’ legs and frame cannot support their bloated breasts. They struggle to walk, are prone to deformities, and spend most of their time sitting and eating. Because they put on weight so fast, but their internal organs aren’t keeping up, their insides expand like a balloon. “It’s like an 11-year-old child that weighs 600 pounds,” says Frank Reese, heritage poultry breeder and owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch.

The chickens’ skin, in near-constant contact with the ground, is prone to infections. With weak immune systems, packed in artificially lighted barns with tens of thousands of other birds, they’re also more susceptible to diseases than chickens raised outdoors—hence the need to feed them antibiotics at sub-therapeutic levels. (Some producers have stopped or reduced this practice, but it has often led to higher rates of chicken disease and mortality.)

“These chickens are born to suffer. They’re genetically manipulated to grow so big so fast that they’re in constant pain,” said Josh Balk, head of the Farm Animal Protection team at the Humane Society of the United States. “Their cages are their genetics.”

Intense selective breeding has also impacted consumers and chicken producers. Tens of thousands of broilers are plagued by several muscle diseases, including woody breast (stiff wood-like meat that’s difficult to chew), spaghetti meat, green muscle disease, and white striping, costing producers millions of dollars in revenue. Some consumers complain that modern chicken is bland. And, increasingly, others have voiced concerns about the conditions in the factory farms in which they’re raised.

Capitalizing on consumer awareness, the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a group that was founded in partnership with Whole Foods Market and sets standards for farmed animal welfare, announced three years ago that by 2024 it would only give its animal-welfare certifications to farms raising slower-growing chickens. The announcement affects more than 600 currently GAP-certified farms and their 277 million chickens, a relatively small percentage of the nation’s 9 billion birds. However, that number could grow significantly as an increasing number of companies—including Whole Foods, Bon Appetit Management Company, Aramark, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Subway—have also vowed to sell meat only from slow-growing chickens.

Achieving these standards means facing a fundamental quandary: Most modern broilers would die if they survived past 50 days or spent considerable time outside. To raise slow-growing birds, chicken genetics would have to be fixed first —combining some of the newer genetics with the few remaining heritage or “standard” breeds left from before the industry changed.

“If we were going to really shift the industry to something that allows chickens to express natural behavior and gives them access to the outdoors, it was necessary to tackle the genetics. If not, we’d never be able to change the system beyond cosmetically… the birds would still suffer much of their lives,” said Andrew DeCoriolis, executive director at Farm Forward, an animal welfare advocacy group.

Pastured birds roam outside a chicken house. Photo courtesy of Cook's Venture by Chris Montgomery.

Pastured birds roam outside a chicken house. Photo courtesy of Cook’s Venture by Chris Montgomery.

Racing to Slow Down

What makes Cooks Venture unique is that it controls the genetics of its chickens. The birds of most other producers originate with one of just two chicken breeder groups, Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress (a Tyson subsidiary), which control a large part of the world’s chicken genetics. Matthew Wadiak entered the business by purchasing a free-range operation that had been run by Blake Evans, the grandson of the late poultry magnate and breeder Lloyd Peterson, originator of the  internationally known Peterson male. Peterson’s conventional broiler business sold 1.3 million birds a week at its peak.

In recent years, Peterson’s grandson has been working to “rebuild the bird from the ground up” to create a more natural chicken that could live on pasture. So he bought a few hundred heritage Naked Neck and heritage Delaware birds—both standard breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association—and crossed them with a faster-growing proprietary breed that had been developed years ago by his grandfather.

The three-way cross combines the best attributes of each breed, Evans hopes. With the farm’s geneticist, Richard Udale, they bred the birds for a strong frame and legs, good bone density, a healthy immune system, and flavorful meat. The resulting chickens grow a little slower—55 to 62 days from birth to slaughter, as opposed to the 42-day industry standard. They don’t put on much weight in the first weeks, giving the skeletal system time to develop. And their weight is designed to be distributed more evenly so that they can still walk, jump, and perch—though eventually, they grow to an average 3-4 pounds (males can grow to be 5 pounds).

The company’s birds thrive in the outdoors; they’re never fed antibiotics. Yet their survival rate is greater than 97 percent, Evans said. (Some conventional antibiotic-free chicken producers face mortality rates into the double digits, he explained.) They’re also not plagued by any muscle diseases. They’re labeled as “heirloom,” according to Cooks Venture, because they are produced from pure lines and don’t come from the conventional Cornish Cross origins.

When Wadiak bought the farm, Evans and Udale became his business partners. By then, they had raised these chickens for about 10 years, perfecting the hybrid cross. This gives Cooks Venture a distinct advantage over other companies pursuing slow-growth birds. Selective breeding is time-consuming. It takes 126 weeks, or about 2.5 years, to go from the great-grandparent stock to the grandparent, parent, and then broiler, Wadiak said. And this cycle needs to be repeated multiple times to generate and refine desirable traits and get predictable results.

Wadiak said he chose not to sell pure heritage birds because they’re not cost-effective for a large-scale company and are less consumer-friendly. Heritage breeds take at least 16 weeks, or 112 days, to reach market weight. “When you’re trying to create a food system, that’s not efficient,” Wadiak said. In addition, he said, consumers may not like the taste of true heritage chicken, or the fact that preparing it requires more time because the meat can be less tender. The company’s lower-growth birds have more flavor and a firmer texture than conventional chicken, but may be an easier sell.

Cooks Venture has been in the works for several years, but officially launched in March. The Arkansas farm, which includes a hatchery and nearly 60 barns for broilers and pedigree birds (the parent stock for the broilers), currently produces tens of thousands of meat chickens per week. In June, when one of the company’s two processing plants opens, it will produce over 100,000 birds a week, Wadiak said. And it will ramp up to full capacity—700,000 chickens per week—within the next two years.

Cooks Venture chickens will sell for $15-$20 a bird, and will be shipped frozen to customers’ homes. That’s about $4 per pound, which is more expensive than conventional poultry, but cheaper than some true heritage breeds, which can sell for as high as $9 a pound.

Another entrepreneur who has experimented with slower-growing chicken on pasture in recent years is Jesse Solomon of Emmer & Co. The company started out by selling heritage birds to high end-restaurants and butcher shops. But it had to change its approach. “They’re economically hard to work with,” said Solomon. “They take too long to get to market weight and there’s a limited market of people who appreciate that experience and are willing to pay more for it.”

This year, Emmer & Co is using the Ross Cornish, a hybrid cross that grows in 42 to 56 days. But unlike conventional Cornish strains designed for fast growth, this bird grows to only about 3.5 lbs. “We’re growing a much smaller chicken during the same time frame. Its anatomy is more balanced, so it can be more active,” Solomon said. “Our birds are outside on pasture, foraging, flapping, running around, using more muscle mass.” He added that the way chickens are grown, their environment, matters as much as the speed at which they grow.

Emmer & Co started out working with contract farmers, but found that it was difficult to get a consistent quantity of chickens year-round, Solomon said. It recently built its own pasture-based farm on 50 acres in Fairfield, California, outside the Bay Area, where it’s producing 2,000 to 3,000 chickens per week. The chickens spend most of their time outdoors, and are housed in solar-powered, fully automated moving structures. As the houses move across the fields, the litter and manure is composted and reapplied to the pasture to improve the soil. The company also plans to follow other regenerative agricultural practices, including rotating pastures, planting a more diverse grass mix on its farm, and using cover crops.

Emmer & Co. has ambitions to “grow into the largest pasture-raised chicken company in the country,” Solomon said, by creating a model that other farmers can replicate.

Emmer & Co.'s chickens in pasture. (Photo courtesy of Emmer & Co.)

Emmer & Co.’s chickens on pasture. (Photo courtesy of Emmer & Co.)

Heritage vs. Slow-Growing

The poultry industry has pushed back on slower-growing chicken. The National Chicken Council has warned that if only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to one of these breeds, it would require additional feed enough to fill 670,000 tractor trailers per year. About 7.6 million acres of land would be needed to grow the extra feed. Slower-growing chickens would also produce 28.5 billion additional pounds of manure annually and drink an additional 1 billion gallons of water. The cost of one-third of the industry switching to slower birds would be $9 billion.

But there’s also some skepticism—and many questions—from those in favor of slow chicken genetics. To Frank Reese, the heritage chicken farmer, Cooks Venture and Emmer & Co. chickens are still fast-growing. Reese, a trailblazer in the poultry world who is trying to save true heritage breeds on his farm in Kansas, says hybridization could cause unknown mutations and eventually eliminate the original breeds.

“Anytime you start selecting an animal and you treat it like a machine, you always have to sacrifice something,” said Reese. “For slow growth to be industrial, it’s got to be about 60 days (for chickens to reach market weight). That’s still pretty fast. My chickens in 60 days would be half their size.”

Reese’s chickens take at least 112 days to grow. They’ve reproduced for many generations on the Kansas prairie, and are very resilient. Reese, who breeds turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese, says they’re worth keeping as pure breeds for many reasons, including animal welfare and genetic diversity. “If we destroy the old genetics, once they are gone they’re gone forever,” said Reese. “Someday, we’re going to wish we had them. We’re going to run into some disease, some mutation that we can’t conquer, and we won’t have these disease-resistant birds to go back to.”

Organizations such as Farm Forward take a less purist approach. “From our perspective, the gold standard is heritage production and heritage genetics. These birds can demonstrate the highest welfare outcomes and can live the best poultry life,” said program director DeCoriolis. “But poultry companies can also create new strains, for example from heritage breeds, that can achieve the same welfare outcomes as heritage birds. We’re open to that possibility.”

And, given the life of modern broilers, rolling back their growth rate even by 10 to 20 percent makes a real difference, DeCoriolis said. The trick, he added, will be for consumers to accept the higher costs of slower-grown poultry that reflect the true costs of production.

But animal welfare groups caution that while fixing chicken genetics is crucial, slower growth should not be the only marker of welfare. The birds should grow at a rate at which they’re not suffering and are healthy, said Balk of the Humane Society. They should also be given more space, have access to bales or perching areas instead of sitting in a barren warehouse, and should be rendered unconscious by a gas at slaughter instead of being shackled fully conscious and having their throats slit, he adds.

Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, which maintains the standards for the Animal Welfare Approved label, added that the right feed, access to pasture, and bedding are also important. “Slower-growing birds have the potential for high welfare,” Gunther said. “But it’s potential, because the speed of growth is only one attribute.”

The Animal Welfare Approved certification, one of the strictest welfare labels in the U.S., bases its chicken standards around growth and genetics on research conducted by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the largest animal welfare organization in the United Kingdom. In 2006, as part of its RSPCA Assured food label, that charity decided to allow only slower-growing breeds. Slower-growing was defined as “those breeds that have a maximum genetic growth rate of less than 45 grams [about 1.6 ounces] per day.”

However, the RSPCA soon recognized the limits of using just the growth rate to safeguard chicken welfare, said Marc Cooper, the RSPCA’s Head of Farm Animals. It was difficult to know a breed’s true genetic growth rate, Cooper said, and the growth rate did not offer any evidence about a breed’s actual level of welfare.

Six years later, the RSPCA developed the Broiler Welfare Assessment Protocol, which mandates that birds be assessed for a number of parameters in addition to the growth rate, including leg health, hock burn, foot pad burn, and mortality. This information is then used to decide whether a breed should be accepted for use under the standards. The assessment is carried out at RSPCA centers through controlled trials. Currently, the organization allows six slower-growing breeds under its label.

Another strict set of chicken standards that goes beyond slow growth genetics is the Label Rouge, established by the French government in the 1960s to preserve heritage breeds, meat quality, and traditional farming methods. Label Rouge requires a minimum growth rate of 81 days to 110 days and use of traditional regional breed crosses that are approved under the label and adapted to the outdoors. But it also entails lower density in houses, smaller flock sizes, access to pasture, and specific feed ingredients. Despite being nearly twice as expensive as conventional chicken, Label Rouge commands 25 percent of chicken sales in France, according to Marie Guyot, director of Synalaf (the National Union of Poultry Labels of France).

And in the Netherlands, the Beter Leven 3-star system mandates slower breeds and other welfare markers. Also, European Union standards specify that free-range chickens must be at least 56 days old at slaughter, ‘traditional free-range’ (which have access to the outdoors for longer) at least 81 days, and organic chickens should either be reared until they reach a minimum age of 81 days or come from slow-growing poultry strains.

It’s still unclear which birds American producers will be able to use to raise slower-growing chickens on a large scale—or what other welfare standards they’ll need to follow in conjunction with the slower genetics. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada are conducting a study, funded in part by GAP, to address these issues. They’re focusing on 20 chicken strains—ranging from conventional to pure heritage breeds—to determine which have the best health outcomes, activity levels, and efficiency outcomes. Once the results are in, GAP will develop a list of approved slow-growth strains and breeds for each step of its certification program.

Frank Reese with his heritage turkeys. Photo © Twilight Greenaway

Frank Reese with his heritage turkeys. Photo © Twilight Greenaway

Can Slow-Growing Chicken Regenerate the Earth?

Cooks Venture says the chicken’s longer life cycle actually creates opportunities. The birds can help mitigate climate change through regenerative agriculture—namely, by focusing on how their feed crops are grown. The company is partnering with local farmers to grow alternatives to conventional corn and soybean feeds, including hemp, lupins, and lentils. To produce hundreds of thousands of chickens, it will need to contract for hundreds of thousands of acres of land to grow the feed, Wadiak said (though it’s starting out smaller, with tens of thousands of acres).

Cooks Venture says it plans to use financial incentives to compel its growers to reduce pesticides, foster soil health through crop rotation and composting, and focus on biodiversity. The company is hoping to encourage medium and large-sized feed growers to switch to organic production, by paying those who are transitioning a better price than for conventional crops in the interim.

“The idea that we’ll be able to go back to small farms, it’s not going to happen,” Wadiak said. “We need to replicate a small farm environment with good agroecology and science to prove we can create more organic matter in soil through carbon sequestration and good biological practices.”

Cooks Venture plans to publish the results of its regenerative agriculture practices annually. Agronomists will take soil samples from the Cooks Venture farm, its contract growers, and feed suppliers, and test them for carbon content and biological material. They’ll also measure biodiversity indicators including native bee populations, wildlife, and trees on the farms.

Wadiak’s approach is backed by sustainable meat industry pioneer Bill Niman, a friend and mentor (Blue Apron bought Niman’s BN ranch in 2017). “We’ve all come to understand that continuing to do what we’re doing is dangerous to the long-term survival of humans on the planet,” Niman told Civil Eats. “If we don’t think regeneratively, to return nitrogen to soil, to make sure animals are part of this ecosystem, to convert as many as possible to pasture-based, then the existing system is going to fail.” Niman said he’s no longer with Blue Apron and is planning to join Cooks Venture in the near future with his heritage turkeys.

Wadiak also hopes to ensure that the economics of the farms are sustainable. Like much of the poultry industry, Cooks Venture works with contract growers—it has over 100 chicken houses through such contracts. But Wadiak said his company won’t run a “tournament system” like those used by companies such as Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride. That system ranks contract growers against one another and high-ranking farmers get paid more, while low-ranking ones get significantly less. As such, many contract growers face economic hardship, and go deep into debt to build and improve chicken and equipment.

While average tournament system pay is about 5.5 cents per live pound, Wadiak said Cooks Venture pays a base pay to growers that starts at 10 cents per live pound and can go up to 13 cents as the grower improves bird health, outdoor access, and biodiversity. As the company courts conventional chicken growers, the plan is to allow them to use their existing barns, provided they add access doors so the chickens can have unrestricted access to pasture during the day.

Large Breeders, Producers Also Looking to Slow Down Chicken Growth

The two large chicken breeding groups—Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress—have been working for years on developing slower growing chicken breeds. In a statement to Civil Eats, Aviagen said it established a breeding program for slower-growing birds over 15 years ago. These birds, called the Rowan Range, “offer exceptional health and welfare characteristics as well as excellent performance for meat production,” according to the company. Three of the Rowan birds are accepted for use under the RSPCA Assured label. The three other RSPCA breeds were developed by Hubbard, another breeding group that’s now a subsidiary of Aviagen. Cobb-Vantress did not provide examples of already developed slower bird lines, but the company said it “invests in a robust research and development program that continually creates and conducts trials on multiple genetic lines with a wide variety of traits and growth rates.”

Perhaps the most visible attempts are those of Perdue Farms, Inc., the fourth-largest U.S. broiler producer, which already has vastly improved its chicken welfare standards. Over the past few years, Perdue has conducted trials of slow-growing birds, including one called the Redbro that takes 25 percent longer to mature than conventional broilers. The company already sells a slower-grown whole bird called Sonoma Red, grown at Perdue-owned Petaluma Poultry, though it’s only available in smaller venues on the West coast.

Most recently, Perdue has studied 11 other slower-growing varieties (including some from Europe) on its research farm in Maryland, said Bruce Stewart-Brown, the company veterinarian and senior vice president. In test pens with cameras, Brown observed how long it takes the birds to reach the 5.5-pound market weight, how much they move around, how strong they are, how often they perch, and their desire to go outside. All were raised with unlimited outdoor access, Brown said. Some ate the pasture to the ground, others less so.

Brown said the trials have uncovered several new breed varieties that are potential products and are preferable to the Redbro cross—they’re more hardy and active, have more white meat, and “spectacular” dark meat. Brown said the slow-growing birds are like “another type of animal” and thus an exciting opportunity.

The company is still trying to figure out how to get better at growing slower chicken, he said, including what type of feed to offer them. An organic diet would mean an even higher price tag, but a conventional one isn’t appropriate. Another question is how to market the birds to customers, since they do have less white breast meat, and will cost more.

Brown said he thinks customers will come around: “My dad was not in the chicken business, he’s a veterinarian. He would look constantly for that traditional chicken flavor… I think he’d be happy with these birds.”

If consumers do come around, it appears likely that there will be plenty of companies ready to feed their demand.

 

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