Whole Foods to source slower growing chickens

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 17, 2016 - Whole Foods said Thursday it plans to be the first major food business in the U.S. to source slower-growing chicken breeds, instead of the conventional, faster-growing breeds that produce 98 percent of all commercially available chicken meat in North America.

With guidance from the 5-Step Rating Program Global Animal Partnership (GAP), Whole Foods will source only slower-growing chicken breeds by 2024. The grocery store chain will also require certain living standards for the birds it sources, including larger cages - with a stocking density of 6 pounds per square foot or less, about 25 percent more space than conventional cages - that offer natural light and enrichment, like straw bails or perches.

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Theo Weening, global meat buyer for Whole Foods Market, said in a release that the company had been using GAP's standards to improve animal welfare since 2011. According to GAP more than 600 chicken farms, housing 277 million chickens, currently use the GAP standards.

Nina Farley, spokeswoman for Compassion in World Farming USA, said conventionally bred chickens are “genetic monster(s)” that grow at such a rate their legs can't support their “oversized breasts.”

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The birds experience “lameness, heart conditions and immune function problems, to name a few” ailments as a result, Leah Garces, a GAP board member and the U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming, said. “It's high time we give chickens a life worth living.”

Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, told Agri-Pulse that “chicken producers are in the business of providing choice in the marketplace, and we strongly support that choice… whether it is traditional chicken, organic, free range or raised without antibiotics.” 

However, he said, “We do not believe… that one production system should be vilified at the expense of another.”

Super said while modern chickens are much larger than those raised in the 1920s, the U.S. flock of broilers is as healthy as ever.

Gwen Venable, spokeswoman for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, said in a release that “better technology, science and genetics” are behind today's faster growing chickens.

“It would not only be unethical for a farmer… but from a pure business standpoint, it would make zero business and economic sense for a farmer to do anything to a bird that would harm it,” she said. “Chickens like to do four things: eat, drink, play around/flock together and rest. In today's barns, they have plenty of room to do all of those things.” 

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