“Eat like your ancestors.” The phrase brings about feelings of nostalgia for all that is good, simple and natural about food. Perdue’s Harvestland campaign slogan conjures up an image of farming ways of the past. Its website points consumers to chicken recipes from the turn of the century. At that time, the world of chicken was a starkly different one from today. The habits of eating meat were also radically different.
At the turn of the century and for many decades afterward, chickens were standard, slow-growing breeds. They were diverse in their genetics. The number-one meat chicken breed at that time in America was the Barred Plymouth Rock, although farmers would have also used a plethora of breeds, including Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire, Old English Game, Leghorns, Wyndotte, Dominques, White Faced Spanish, Crevecoeurs, Cochin and Javas.
These birds were slaughtered at 16 to 18 weeks and reached 2- 2.5 pounds.1 Today, by contrast, chickens reach more than double that slaughter weight (5.8 lbs) in one-third of the time, at six weeks. As a result of selective breeding, birds grow furiously fast and unnaturally large, much to the detriment of their welfare. And, by contrast, 80 percent of all of today’s chicken produced globally — some 44 billion birds — come from one of three breeding companies (Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard, and Ross) that all produce a bird almost identical genetically.
The birds of our ancestors grew gradually and were dual-purpose for eggs and meat. They lived out their lives on pasture and were given the scraps from family leftovers. With no electricity and limited refrigeration, birds were hatched by hens right on the farm where they were raised. Today, a breeding and hatching farm is a separate operation from a rearing farm. The welfare of breeding chickens is often dire. They are given severe feed restrictions to keep them from growing too quickly.
If we were to eat like our ancestors, we’d eat chicken on special occasions, likely no more than once a week, say for a Sunday dinner. We’d eat meat rarely. What we did eat would be from slow-growing, standard breeds raised on pasture. Most of the recipes around the turn of the century would have been designed using old roosters, old hens, layer roosters and dual-purpose roosters.
This represents a stark difference from the reality of today’s method of rearing chickens and our consumption of them. In 2013, the average American ate 84 pounds of chicken, almost entirely fast-growing hybrid breeds. Today, 95 percent of all factory-farmed animals in the United States are chickens raised for meat. That is more than 8 billion animals.
The truth is that 99 percent of chickens today, including Perdue’s Harvestland chickens, are kept in overcrowded and dimly lit conditions. Tens of thousands of chickens are kept in one windowless house. They are bred to grow unnaturally large and unnaturally fast, so much so that they can collapse under the weight of their own enormous chests and have difficulty walking and breathing. All of this crowding makes it difficult to keep the air fresh and the litter clean and dry.
The campaign states it has “No antibiotics, fillers, hormones or steroids—just good, old-fashioned chicken, turkey and pork.” The lack of these elements is the only obvious similarity to our ancestors’ birds2. Hormones and steroids are, of course, illegal to use in all pigs and poultry. So the only true differentiation is the lack of antibiotics in the feed of their meat birds (though not in their breeder birds). This is a welcome improvement in terms of human health. But it is meaningless from the perspective of the welfare of chickens if this is not accompanied by improvements in the conditions in which the chickens are reared and the genetics within the birds.
The reality for chickens today is a far cry from the pasture-based systems of our ancestors, where diverse and robust birds roamed freely. Eating like our ancestors ate would mean a vast improvement in the lives of billions of chickens, involving using slower-growing breeds and pasture-based systems, and a serious reduction in our meat consumption. If that is what Perdue intends to foster, then they are proposing a much-needed reform of the current poultry-farming system. However, simply removing antibiotics from feed is only scratching the surface.
1Source: Frank Reese, poultry historian and standard bred chicken breeder, http://www.goodshepherdpoultryranch.com/
2Antibiotics didn’t exist at the turn of the century. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was not approved as a drug until 1942.© Food Safety News