Just as America’s appetite for chicken has grown, so has the bird at the center of Alabama’s $15.1 billion poultry economy.
But a recent study refutes claims chickens today are bigger because of unnatural hormones and other growth enhancements. Instead, experts say consumers can thank improved genetics for meatier drumsticks and larger chicken tenders.
Poultry farmers, like Clay Nichols of Lowndes County and Trip Horne of Barbour County, say the study confirms what they’ve been telling friends and neighbors for years.
“You’ll go to the grocery store and the chicken packaging says ‘No hormones added,’ but hormones aren’t added to begin with,” Nichols laughed. “I just wish people would be more educated about what I do.”
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada, may help. The test compared chicken breeds’ genetics found in birds from 1957, 1978 and 2005. The three groups of chickens were raised in identical conditions and given the same feed for 56 days. The modern breed was 400 percent larger than the 1957 chicken — proof that genetic selection, not hormones or steroids, was responsible for the phenomenal growth.
Nichols, 28, welcomed the report, but he’s known all along the thousands of chickens he and wife Chelsea raise every year are healthy and wholesome. In fact, their family eats chicken several times a week, he said.
Horne, a 41-year-old poultry and cattle farmer, said he frequently hears consumers question how chickens and other animals are grown.
“Just last weekend, a lady who didn’t know I was a farmer told me how chickens are pumped full of hormones to make them bigger,” Horne said. “I took the time to tell her that wasn’t the case at all. I told her my chickens aren’t fed any hormones and explained that poultry companies have gone to great lengths to provide chickens with excellent genetics to farmers like me. I also told her that we give our chickens quality feed, clean water and good housing to help them grow.”
Horne started his own poultry farm seven years ago after working for a poultry company as a field representative and live-haul manager. He knows the poultry business from the inside out and doesn’t hesitate when asked if chickens are safe to eat.
“My two kids and my wife live on this farm, too, and I wouldn’t do anything that I thought might harm them,” he said. “We eat chicken two or three times a week. My kids work on the farm, too, and are learning the responsibility and value of growing food not just for our family but our country and our world.”
Wallace Berry, assistant professor in the Department of Poultry Science at Auburn University, said he is frequently asked about modern farming myths from a non-farming population. He explains genetics have changed nearly every aspect of farming, not just poultry.
“I’ll show a picture of native corn (teosinte) that’s the ancestor to modern corn,” he said. “It looks like a stalk of grass. Then, I show a regular cob of corn. People are usually pretty receptive to it and seem to understand genetic selection.”
The Canadian study also cited improved feed conversion as a reason for larger, faster-growing chickens.
“Feed conversion is basically the pound of bird per pound of feed ratio,” Berry said. “The people who pushed chicken breeding started out as plant geneticists. Because chickens mature quickly and produce a lot of offspring, there has been huge progress in breeding and feeding. It’s not like breeding cattle where you produce one or two offspring a year.”
Alabama Farmers Federation Poultry Division Director Guy Hall said consumer education and farmers’ willingness to share their stories help dispel misconceptions about food.
“As our general population is farther removed from farming, people are less familiar with what happens on a farm,” Hall said. “Farmers want to produce a wholesome, safe product for consumers at an affordable price. Improved genetics are one way for farmers to grow chickens that can reach market faster while conserving resources like water, feed and energy.”
To review the Canadian study research, click here.