Why Whole Foods’ Big Poultry Revolution is Chicken Shit

One of the most frustrating things about being in agriculture is watching people who mean well, but who do not have enough knowledge and experience to be truly informed, make bad decisions on behalf of the industry and its consumers. But then, I guess you could say that’s the most frustrating thing about being alive. In almost any capacity there are people who have surface familiarity with a topic in decision making positions. Such is the dynamic of power — especially in the information age.

This month Whole Foods announced that it would be pressuring all of its suppliers to transition to slow-growing meat chickens. This morning a long-term customer of our farm emailed me a link to the NPR article on it for my take. In emailing her back I realized it’s probably something I should post about here. We sell chicken, after all, and our goal in growing those chickens — as well as our pork, beef, lamb and vegetables — is not so unlike Whole Food’s own: high quality and flavor. In fact, over the years we have produced chicken in almost every combination you can imagine, looking for the best way to deliver the results we and our customers (who are often Whole Foods shoppers themselves) want.

We’ve raised standard broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised slow-growing broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised dual-purpose cockerels, so-called “heritage birds”: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

Through it all we’ve kept track of expenses vs income, customer satisfaction, farmer satisfaction, labor per pound of meat produced, feed per pound of meat produced, and animal welfare (including rates of injury, death, and predation.) What I’m saying is: we know a thing or two about raising quality, flavorful chicken in alternative systems. And as I read the article this morning all I could do was shake my head. Once again decision makers are taking a simple problem and instead of applying the simplest and most effective solution, they’re making gross overcorrections without considering the consequences and selling it to consumers as revolution.

The problem, as defined by Whole Foods — and on which I would agree with them, by the way — is that standard broiler birds are prone to leg problems. They grow rapidly, which means their weight gain can outpace their legs’ ability to hold them up and propel them around. Which can create animal welfare problems if they cease to be able to get around on their own before being sent to market. But the key word in all of this is can. There is a big difference between correlation and causation, and even where cause is clear cut nothing exists in a bubble. What we have found on our farm is that rapid weight gain causes leg problems only when it’s allowed to co-exist with inactivity. In other words, rapid-gaining birds who use their legs as they gain don’t end up handicapped.

Yet somewhere along the way people decided that it was inhumane for chickens to walk more than a few feet to the food and water source despite the fact that it is quite natural for them to travel hundreds of yards per day otherwise. Inside the conventional agricultural industry this became standard practice due to high-density stocking rates and competition. Not having food and water every few feet means birds might fight and some might not get adequate access which would be a violation of humane animal stewardship on its own. But then, for inexplicable reasons, the same standard was applied to alternative systems as well. Here stock density doesn’t create competitive environments, but farmers still were warned to keep food and water within wing’s reach or else fancy themselves neglectful and abusive. So much so that third party humane certifications demand it.

Certainly, when chicks are quite young you want to make sure their needs are met and they don’t have to work too hard for it. Babies should be treated like babies. But as they grow this is an absurd standard that does more harm than good, and virtually creates the problem Whole Foods is now re-creating the wheel to “solve.” Rather than simply create guidelines for their farmers to move the food and water further from each other as the birds mature, forcing them to move around more in order to prevent leg problems as they grow, they’re demanding their suppliers abandon an entire breed* of chicken. Which might not be the end of the world, if that breed of chicken itself was not a linchpin solution to much bigger problems — environmental, human rights and animal welfare in nature.

  • Environmental Problems
    The standard cornish cross broiler’s rapid growth is not just an ability to pack on pounds. It is an ability to pack on pounds while eating less feed per pound of growth. In the farming community we call this Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR. And while it sounds wonkish and boring, it has enormous sustainability implications. In the U.S. the average FCR for cornish cross broilers is about 1.8. Which means it takes less than two pounds of feed per pound of gain. For the sake of simplicity and continuity I’ll stick with the numbers NPR used for examples in their article. This means that for a standard broiler to be grown to six pounds, it requires about 10.8 pounds of feed. 

    While the 25% increase for slower-growing birds quoted in the NPR article doesn’t sound like much at first it means about 13.5 pounds of feed is needed for a slower-growing bird of the same size, or 2.7 additional pounds. And so you can see how it adds up quickly when we’re talking about the sheer number of birds Whole Foods suppliers raise. Let alone the entirety of the U.S. poultry industry. According to Whole Foods their demands will affect 277 million birds per year. Which means Whole Foods’ supplier farmers will use 747.9 million more pounds of feed per year to produce the same amount of meat for Whole Foods’ customers.

    And while “feed” may seem abstract for someone who doesn’t use it every day, it’s largely just corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals. With the corn and soybean meal being the bulk of it and the important part here. Rounding for simplicity of math (but not so much as to be inaccurate), the average broiler’s diet over the course of it’s lifetime is made up of about 60% corn and 25% soybean meal.

    So in the case of Whole Foods’ slow-growing broilers, that’s an additional 448.74 million pounds of corn and 186.975 million pounds of soybean meal per year. Using the most recent USDA yield trend data for corn and soybeans, this means Whole Food’s teensy-tiny 3% of the broiler industry alone will require more than 11.13 million bushels of grain, calling for more than 112,000 additional acres of crop land — 47,698 corn and more than 64,921 soybean. Which means Whole Foods’ feel-good poultry campaign either requires us to take more than 112,000 acres out of wildlife habitat and put it into cropland or all of that additional demand will fall on current cropland, causing a run up in grain — and by extension food — prices. Which brings me to…

  • The Human Rights Problems
    The World Food Programme estimates that 795 million people in the world today are hungry. In the developing world 12.9% of the population is chronically undernourished. In the U.S. alone 1 in 6 people face food insecurity. 20% of U.S. households with children reported food shortages in 2011. Meanwhile, the global population is increasing rapidly. Earth will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050, representing a 33% increase in population over just 35 years. Most of this growth will take place in developing and poor nations where food insecurity is directly related to extreme poverty. 

    In a global economy it is impossible to insulate food choices in prosperous countries from affecting food insecurity in poor nations. Which means that moves like this one by Whole Foods will be a considerable contributor to food insecurity, hunger and starvation around the world in the years to come.

  • The Animal Welfare Problems
    And as much as I would love for all of this — the environmental and human rights issues — to be enough, I know we live in a world where the picture of a slain elephant garners more outrage than that of slain children in war zones so I will also add this: Whole Foods is not just demanding this change of feel-good, hobby farmers with plenty of space to spare. They’re also demanding that farmers who raise their birds in conventional barns follow suit. I don’t need to explain to you that smaller, lighter animals often are more active than their heavier counterparts. We describe lightweight boxers as “scrappy” for a reason. Putting lighter, scrappier birds in an enclosed barn together will not end well for the birds. We are going down the cage-free eggs path again, because we still haven’t learned our lesson. Chickens are not nice to one another in enclosed spaces, and the more active they are the more time and energy they will spend picking on one another. I don’t like battery cages any more than the next bleeding heart, but I don’t buy cage free eggs for a reason: those battery cages served the purpose of preventing hens from brutalizing one another in enclosed, densely stocked barns. Putting slow-growing broilers in those same barns will result in that same competition and fighting. It’s not more humane, it’s less.

The NPR reporter wants you to believe that the size and growth rate of broilers is responsible for the modern history of our increase in chicken consumption, and that by extension Whole Foods’ slow-growing chickens will force Americans to cut back. “A century ago,” writes NPR author Dan Charles, “your typical chicken was really kind of scrawny. It took about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. One result: Americans really didn’t eat much chicken.” But this, again, demonstrates a failure to distinguish between causation and correlation. And in this case even the correlation between broiler efficiency and chicken consumption is loose at best. People didn’t eat less chicken in the past because chickens didn’t grow quickly, they ate less chicken because they were poor and farms hadn’t yet industrialized. It simply wasn’t available and where it was, it was too expensive. History has been very consistent in this regard: as incomes rise, people eat more animal products. So long as we continue to prosper people will eat their meat. Prosperity is the reason for Whole Foods’ very existence, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

And in many cases this isn’t a bad thing. Researchers in Kenya found that the addition of milk and meat to the diet of impoverished school children improved development outcomes for everything from growth and weight gain to test scores to leadership behaviors during play. Can meat and milk be overconsumed? Sure. As can any and every other kind of food and drink. But in the big picture it’s a valuable source of nutrition and will continue to be, increasingly so, well into the future. I believe Whole Foods’ customers want to make good decisions, I believe they want their food dollars to act as a vote for good in the world and for better outcomes for the environment, their fellow humans and for the animals which act as a part of the system. It’s a sentiment I share with them, and a founding principle of my own farm. Which is why I know in this case, Whole Foods is not just failing its customers it’s perverting their trust for monetary gain. And that, my friends, is chicken shit.

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* Standard broilers are not technically a breed, they are hybrids or “cross-breds”. Think: Labradoodle. I’ve used the word “breed” here for lack of a more succinct and accessible descriptor.

** Since this post was written quickly between farm chores on Tuesday, an earlier version contained a couple of mistakes — one due to rounding, and one due to missing a step. Those have been fixed in the current version.

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