animal welfare

The Poultry Industry Wants Scientists to ‘Breed Out’ Chicken Suffering

Big Poultry hopes it will reduce birds’ health problems. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The travesties factory farming inflicts on the defenseless chicken are widely known by now. Big companies have for years wrestled with how to adapt mass-production practices so that their broilers are happy(-ish) but the profits stay high. Now, some industry geniuses say they’ve figured out the answer, and it involves no changes to chicken-rearing, but lots of science. Yes, Big Poultry is now trying to genetically engineer a chicken that feels less suffering.

Technically, per BuzzFeed, these trailblazers are trying to “breed” it out, but thankfully it sounds more nuanced than a team of scientists suturing together a Frankenchicken that’s missing the nerve endings that transmit pain when it’s being debeaked. This deals entirely with birds’ size and rate of growth. Half a century ago, the industry decided to develop a chicken 2.0. It selectively bred a version that today gets twice as big in almost half the time. Shockingly, this wasn’t advantageous from a biological perspective, so chicken houses ended up filled with fat birds that had bad bones, heart problems, and other malformations with exciting names like “woody breast” and “green muscle disease.”

The industry’s answer is to stop using these birds, which have Terminator-style names like “Ross 708” or “Hubbard M99,” and create a newer, genetically reengineered kind that can “do the things that chickens want to do, which is act like chickens.” Perdue’s on board with this plan: It’s “exploring various ways” to make birds grow at a speed closer to the one nature intended, freeing them “from pain, injury, and disease.” The industry’s top breeding companies are helping out, too. One of them, Hubbard, promises it is “ahead of the game with these genetics” already, because it has developed slow-growing breeds that do well in Europe.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy to convince the whole industry to use smaller birds that require more TLC. “They’re a different chicken, they act differently,” as one Perdue executive tells BuzzFeed. Producers’ concerns right now are mostly about the costs (more feed, more time to market, less yield, even — who’d have guessed? — more activity from the birds, which would probably require producers to redesign their coops). Also, there’s apparently this whole matter of the product tasting “a bit more chewy,” but that’s probably not a tough sell if the alternative is gambling on something called “woody breast.”

Big Poultry Wants Science to ‘Breed Out’ Chicken Suffering