By Mike Pomranz
Updated February 24, 2017
chicken farming
Credit: © Lester Lefkowitz / Getty Images

For decades, America’s chickens have been selectively bred to boost producers’ profits, resulting in birds that grow faster and meatier than ever before. But according to a recent BuzzFeed News report, both brands and breeders have increasingly had another goal on their mind – using selective breeding not to make birds more profitable, but to make their short existence more humane.

In an astounding fact from the National Chicken Council, in the past 50 years, US broilers (as the industry calls chickens raised for meat) have gone from taking 63 days to reach a slaughter weight of 3.48 pounds in 1965, to taking 48 days to reach 6.24 pounds in 2015 – all while requiring less feed. Though that may be a boon for the chicken industry, selecting for speed and size over other factors has been bad for birds, causing unnecessary suffering thanks to what amount to physical defects, according to activists. “Factory farming is a cheap way to produce a lot of chicken, but it has gone too far,” animal rights group Compassion in World Farming was quoted as saying.

This sentiment has reached a point where the industry has been forced to respond. In January, the National Chicken Council released a study suggesting that slower growing chickens could have negative environmental and economic implications, but at the same time stressed “its members remain committed to chicken welfare” and “support further research on the topic of chicken welfare and growth rates.” Even chicken giant Perdue’s senior vice president Bruce Stewart-Brown told BuzzFeed that his company is looking at ways to allow chickens to “act like chickens,” including in the brand’s breeding choices.

As a result, major breeders like Hubbard have actually been going against the industry trend and been refocusing on offering slower-growing breeds that in theory may be living more enjoyable lives (minus the whole “they’re-still-going-to-be-slaughtered” thing). “We’re ahead of the game with these genetics,” Sean Holcombe, Hubbard’s director of sales and technical Services for the US and Canada, said.

So in some ways, breeders are working to undo their earlier work. Interestingly, BuzzFeed chose to title its report, “Chicken Companies Are Trying To Breed A Bird That Suffers Less” – an eye-grabbing headline that somewhat implies breeders are working on creating chickens with proverbial “thicker skin,” birds that don’t cry when watching Bambi. Though that doesn’t quite appear to the case, the less-dramatized take is almost as surreal: Breeders aren’t necessarily creating “better” chickens; they’re creating chickens that are more like chickens were in the first place.