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Growing a Better Chicken, Slowly

Close-up of group of white chickens on a farm

Almost all of the chicken in America’s food supply comes from breeds of fast-growing “broiler” chickens that reach maturity quicker than ever before. Sounds efficient, right? Well, we’re fans of pokier, slower-growing chickens. Here’s why.

Chicken is the number one protein consumed in the United States, with Americans eating more than 90 pounds per capita per year on average. In order to maximize efficiency, poultry producers have selectively bred their stock over time to develop chickens that grow quickly with less feed. This practice has been wildly successful: Today, most chickens reach a market weight of 5.5 pounds in just 6 to 7 weeks, compared to the much smaller birds that 1950s farmers used to deliver after 3 months. (This efficiency was detailed in memorable fashion in the documentary Food, Inc.).  

While this triumph of breeding has resulted in billions of pounds of inexpensive chicken, there are some ethical problems. These birds pack on so much muscle mass — designed to do so mostly in their breasts, the most popular cut — in their short life spans that their joints can’t always support their weight. This can create pain and lameness, a welfare issue that affects between 15 to 30 percent of these birds. Studies have also indicated that fast-growing birds are more susceptible to heart and respiratory issues.

At Bon Appétit, we believe it’s time for producers to rethink the “bigger-faster-is-better approach.” We’ve committed to switching to purchasing slower-growing breeds of chickens that meet the standards of Global Animal Partnership (GAP) across 100 percent of our business by 2024. These slower-growing chickens will also live in improved conditions that allow them to engage in natural behaviors more easily and will be slaughtered more humanely.

Why so many years from now? Well, slowing down will take time. Right now, there are no large-scale producers raising these kinds of chickens. Developing and refining breeds that will meet market needs, changing feed protocols — these are enormous tasks for an enormous industry. But if we don’t start asking for it now, there’s no incentive for the industry to improve conditions for the 9 billion birds it raises annually. If this commitment will help move the industry toward more humane practices, we’re glad to do it.