The U.S. chicken industry is set to increase production of slow-growing birds after an influential animal welfare group said it would only certify these varieties.
The Global Animal Partnership, a food labeling program whose five-step wellness assessment is championed by Amazon.com‘s Whole Foods, on Wednesday released a list of 11 breeds of chicken that meet its highest certification standards, down from 27 previously.
Approved birds gain weight more slowly than conventional birds which account for over 90% of the current market, and they have fewer health and meat quality issues, according to a study commissioned by GAP. More than 200 companies, including Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc., have made “Better Chicken” commitments to become GAP compliant by 2026.
Change will not come easily. The breeds of birds on the list represent less than 5% of production, so U.S. poultry producers will need to significantly scale up their slow-growing chicken operations to meet demand, according to Anne Malleau, executive director of GAP. Companies participating in the program can start planning now how to secure supplies and market the meat, she said.
“It’s a balance between what people want and what is available,” Malleau said in an interview. “The success of this initiative is whether people start to transition as soon as they can. “
There are also other challenges. A shift to slower growing birds means higher production costs and higher price tags for consumers. Americans are already facing food inflation and there have been chicken shortages recently due to demand for restaurants and meat factory closures during the Covid-19 outbreak. Conventional chicken producers also say that more food and water are needed to feed these birds.
Yet Americans are increasingly interested in animal welfare and are more willing than ever to pay for foods with ethical claims. GAP’s goal is not only to improve animal welfare, but also to reinvent today’s broiler chicken. Chickens today are able to convert food into muscle mass very quickly, which produces meat efficiently but can also lead to difficulties, such as birds who have difficulty walking.
Breeds selected include those developed by Cooks Venture, Aviagen, Hubbard and Cobb-Vantress, which is owned by Tyson Foods Inc., America’s leading chicken producer. The most commonly used conventional birds are notably absent from the list.
Consumers should start seeing a small number of these approved animals on the market, before there is a bigger groundswell later, Malleau said.
Cooks Venture CEO Matt Wadiak said the company’s approved Pioneer breed is “the culmination of over 12 years of research, and we are proud that the GAP study demonstrates the strength of our breed. “. The company’s biggest asset is the genetics which emphasizes “both health and flavor,” he said.