There’s no shortage of issues surrounding the labeling of chicken. As more consumers become aware of the issues surrounding the industrial production of chicken, we’ve seen terminology and meaning drop left and right. Cage-free, free-range, free-roaming, free-running, naturally raised; each term comes and then gets swallowed whole by an industry that eagerly promotes the age old imagery of chickens wandering freely on farms in the place of what they really offer: cage-free barns with minimal access to over-run “pasture.”
The wording gets tricky and the reason is simple: chicken is a commodity. The market dictates a cheap price, huge breasts, and wording that looks good enough to pass off as legitimate.
And the competition is fierce. Conventional CAFO operations are massive. They are federally subsidized and can produce a butcher weight chicken in 5 weeks by just cramming them full of junk. And when that massive bird inevitably no longer tastes like chicken, they inject them with “chicken flavor”.
The jump to “free range” chickens cost those corporations money, but they can cut every corner and still charge more when the customer thinks the chicken they bought was humanely raised. But if you’re buying chicken in the $1 per lb range, humanely raised is out of the question.
Despite what the market dictates, it’s not cheap to raise chickens, and it’s definitely not cheap if you want to raise them as chickens instead of products.
It’s unfortunately the case that what a chicken wants needs clarification, but that’s where we’re at. Chickens are like people, in confinement they will flock and act mindlessly and often viciously. In CAFO’s they’re debeaked because they’ll attack each other. This has less to do with the nature of a chicken, but with the circumstance of confinement. They need space and they need to move. They’re natural foragers and they’re inclined to spend their mornings wandering around eating grass and the insects that crawl throughout it.
Contrary to what the chicken industry loudly proclaims, chickens are also not vegetarians. It’s become increasingly common to see chickens and eggs marketed as being given “vegetarian feed.” That’s good in the sense that CAFO operations will typically dump agricultural byproducts into their chicken’s diets as a cheap feed. That often includes other ground up, confined chicken remains.
Obviously that’s not healthy. But the flip side isn’t ideal either: to drop animal proteins from their diets and pour soy into their feed instead. What chickens need non-coincidentally is what chickens want: bugs!
The chickens raised by LFFC farmers get just that: they typically follow bio-dynamic principles and are free to roam on farms following organic, grazing dairy herds. The cows eat the grass and leave behind the perfect residue for an insect feast. The chickens follow, spending their time chasing the insects, getting their proper nutrients, and contributing to the cycle of turning dung into a naturally nitrogen rich fertilizer: chicken crap.
The result is a chicken that takes longer to grow, is not reliant upon hormones and antibiotics to survive an overcrowded, unnatural barn, can forage for as much of it’s diet as possible, and can act like a chicken.
In the end, you get the inevitably less-than-surprising result: they taste like the real chicken that the industry has to spend so much money trying to emulate.
But there’s more to it. Beyond the way that the chicken is raised, you have the chicken itself. The standard chicken that winds up battered and fried in buckets or on your plate at fine restaurants is actually the same bird: the Cornish Cross. This white feathered bird looks like it was meant to: over-stuffed. They’re fast growing, breast heavy feed converters.
It’s a scientific wonder that a bird can reach a butcher weight in 5 weeks, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. But the Cornish Cross wasn’t bred for health, it was bred to be churned out in a factory-like setting, quickly, efficiently and cheaply. All of which weren’t done with the Cornish Cross’s interests in mind.
The problem is that, as consumers, that plump breast is what we know. And that’s hard to compete with. The problem is that, if those chickens weren’t butchered at that early age, the breast is unsupportable and it will ultimately be the demise of the bird. If left on their own, the rapidly expanding double breast will become to heavy for the less-than-rugged legs of a bird that was bred without foraging in mind and they will simply sit and eat.
And that’s only in the time it takes for a heritage breed chicken to just barely get to a butcher weight.
That’s not to say that a Cornish Cross can’t be raised well. There are plenty of farmers out there (including LFFC members) that raise Cornish Cross successfully on pasture. They aren’t as hardy of a bird, but they can still get around and forage, it just becomes harder as they get larger. Our farmers never let them get so large that they can no longer walk or move, but it’s in the breed that their massive size becomes more laborious.
That is why we promote heritage breed chickens, because they’re healthier, tastier, hardier chickens.
The problem is that they have the disadvantage of having to compete with their confined, industrialized cousins. It’s not a matter of taste, but of economics: that large, cheap breast dominates our idea of what a chicken is. An irony that is often sadly unnoticed.
When the local foodies, the concerned parents, the activists, and interested eaters start asking questions, the industry responds. They don’t mean it and they’ll certainly cut corners, but it means that more questions need to be asked.
It’s not just a matter of how the chickens are raised, but what kind of chicken we want to eat. Do you want a large breast of a chicken that tastes like chicken because it was cheaply produced commodity with additives? Do you want the Cornish Cross raised on pasture? Or do you want a heritage breed chicken raised on pasture?
LFFC currently offers the latter two, but we have a lot of interest in being open and honest about what we’re doing. In terms of health and hardiness, you can’t beat the heritage birds. But until everyone is ready, our farmers will continue doing our best to let Cornish Cross chickens live their lives as chickens and let the heritage breeds show them the way.
- from LFFC Meats blog
Tuesday, February 7, 2012