No. It’s not your thing, and your eyesight doesn’t fail you. The chickens that arrive at our table are getting bigger and bigger. We know this because a few years ago a group of researchers from Canada compared how three commercial breeds from 1957, 1978 and 2005 grew, given exactly the same type of diet and care. His conclusion: at eight weeks the most modern variety (Ross 308) weighed around 2.3 times more than the 1978 one… and 4.6 times more than the 1957 specimen.
Seen another way: in a matter of half a century, the chickens we raise for consumption have grown by 364%. We have gone from featherweight (wink) to authentic “super heavyweights”.
The change is not casual, nor does it go unnoticed in our shopping baskets or table.
The chicken growth spurt. The increase in size of broilers—those we raise with their meat in mind—is as striking as it is slightly mysterious. If we have larger and heavier varieties, it is simply because that is how we have promoted it over the years to gain productivity. The conclusion of the researchers from the University of Alberta is clear: “A profound change in the productivity of the broiler industry has been achieved through intentional genetic selection using traditional quantitative techniques.”
While their study was published some time ago, it’s still interesting because of how it’s framed: The researchers bred three representative strains of the 1957, 1978, and 2005 broilers by giving them the same care and diet. Throughout the entire process, they analyzed in detail the relationship between how much they ate and how much they gained weight without the analysis being altered by factors such as the use of antibiotics or changes in the type of grain or feed.
The chicken you are eating has increased 364% in size over the last 50 years.
Here is what this means for your health.
THREAD 🧵 pic.twitter.com/65EX4Rr7bB
– Sollozzo 🥩⚡️ (@MrSollozzo) April 16, 2022
What did they find? Well, today’s chickens are every farmer’s golden dream. They need less food to reach great size. For their study, the researchers used a curious unit of measurement called “breast conversion rate”, which relates the grams of food that the animal has eaten with the grams of breast.
The escalation is clear: after four weeks the 1957 variety was at 28.2 g/g, the 1978 variety at 17 and the 2005 variety at 9.4. “This dramatic decline was the synergistic result of increased growth rate, feed efficiency, and yield,” the researchers conclude.
Go up 364% in size in just five decades. As seeing it like this can be confusing, the study provides another more didactic scale: the step by step of how the birds fattened. The result leaves little doubt. At 56 days the representative broiler from 1957 weighed 905 g, the 1978 1,808, and the 2005 Ross 308 4,202 g. The Alberta team acknowledges that the increase in the “rate of growth and efficiency” has been “drastic” since the 1940s and, although they believe that some changes respond to environmental factors, between 85 and 90% are associated with a genetic component. .
Larger and earlier. The fact that the animals grow more in the same time also makes it easier for their breeding period to be shorter and their meat to be marketed earlier. As required The Wall Street JournalIf in 1965 a 1.6 kilo bird took 63 days to reach stores, in 2015 the average bird was already 2.8 kilos in 48 days. Data from the firm Agri Stats Inc. and the US National Chicken Council, however, indicate that a relevant part of the companies choose to bet on larger animals and raise chickens that can exceed 4.5 kilos.
Animals change… and how we eat them. That’s right, chickens change, but also how we eat them. We are more and more friends of buying them chopped and processed instead of taking the whole piece home. If the growth percentages are eloquent, those for consumption are no less so: in 1962, 83% of broilers were marketed as whole birds, 15% as chopped or in parts, and the remaining 2% as processed products. Today the scenario is the opposite. Barely 11% of the chickens that are dispatched in butcher shops are whole units. 43% is delivered cut and almost half, 46%, in the form of processed products.
And also the amount we eat. Beware, that we are less fond of taking whole chickens home does not mean that we consume less. At least in certain countries. This is reflected in the data from the National Chicken Council, the United States trade association that defends the interests of companies in the sector. Their statistics show that in 1960 per capita consumption was 12.7 kilos, ten years later it had already risen to 18.2, in 1980 it was 21.5 and in 2000 it was around 35.1. Its last closed data, corresponding to 2021, places consumption per person at 44.1.
In any case, consumption data varies considerably from one country to another. HelgiLibrary calculates that in 2019 Israel was by far the country that demanded the most poultry meat in the world, with a per capita consumption of 71.7 kg, far from the 0.7 of Ethiopia, the nation that closed the list. In Spain, Statista points out that the average per capita consumption of chicken stood at 13.64 kg two years ago, somewhat above 2019, but more or less in line with the last decade.
The price of meat, key. Perhaps one of the factors that explains the success of chicken meat is its affordable price. During their analysis, the Alberta researchers found that between 1960 and 2004, the US consumer price index for poultry products grew at roughly half the rate for other foods. The key: improvements in growth and efficiency.
“This has probably been an important factor that contributed to higher consumption,” they explain. In Spain, Statista shows that in 2020 the average price of chicken meat stood at 4.38 euros per kilo. The same observatory places a kilo of beef at 9.84 euros on average and that of pork at 6.31.
More meat and cheaper; but… what about its texture? Not all has been good news in the poultry sector over the last few years. We have more meat and at a good price, but there are studies that indicate that at least part of what is marketed has suffered in quality.
Massimiliano Petracci, food technologist at the University of Bologna (Unibo), commented in 2016 to The Wall Street Journal that between 5 and 10% of the breast meat sold in the world presented a condition called “woody” or “woody”, which basically consists of a harder and more elastic texture. The reason is unknown, but experts then pointed to the accelerated growth of birds as one of the keys. “It’s not about the final weight, but how fast the bird gets to that point,” said Sacit F. Bilgili, a professor at Auburn University.
…And with unintended consequences. It is not the only headache for the sector. Previous research —specifies the magazine vox— have also seen an increase in bone, heart and immune system problems in some breeds. The cause? Several factors would be at play, including unintended genetics, diet, or being overweight.
Of course, not all animals and farms are the same. For years, a trend has been gaining strength that is committed to more “natural” breeding, with open chicken coops, cereal-based feeding, and slow-growing varieties of birds with a lower capacity to gain weight, such as sussex, red or barred species, with characteristic other than the industrial broiler type.
The key, as Brett Hundley, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets, recognized when TWSJis looking beyond XXL sizes and profits per kilo… Looking at taste: “Is it worth producing more kilos and losing business because your customer no longer wants to eat your rubbery breast meat?”
Pictures | [Petras Gagilas (Flickr)](Petras Gagilas)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism