Chicken terms defined part 2 - the Cornish Cross
Last week I wrote a brief article on some of the labels that the poultry industry uses like "cage free," "free range," and others. If you didn't read it I'd encourage you to read it here East of Eden | Chicken terms defined part 1
The term "supermarket hybrid chicken" is sometimes thrown around and I'd like to devote some time to bringing clarity to actually what is 99% of the chicken you purchase in the store and restaurant. The majority of modern meat chicken is what the industry calls the "Cornish Cross". The name originates from a breed of chicken called "Cornish" (more to come on that), and has been cross bred since the 1940/50's. This bird has been genetically engineered for one purpose, fast growth!
What do I mean when I say genetically engineered? The genetics of the breed have been "tampered" with by cross breeding and (I would argue) a lack of ethical standards have been applied to the creation of the crossed bird. For instance here are some characteristics found in the modern meat chicken.
- The chicken goes to processing in 37 days. To give you an idea, the normal growth rate of a chicken should result in a processing growth rate of 126+ days. Let that sink in a minute. More than likely the chicken on your dinner table hatched and in 37 days was 5 to 6 pounds in meat (or dressed weight).
- They have incredibly small legs that are unable to support their rapid growth. So it's not uncommon that these birds have joint problems and broken legs. More often than not, they sit! The short legs and large breasts are a result of the genetic engineering.
- Most are vaccinated for immune deficiency decease. This comes from a variety of reasons, but in large part due to an underactive thyroid that causes much of the weight gain.
- They are nutritionally void and rubbery in taste. For the fast growth you're basically eating veil. The bird itself is not nutritionally sound because of a poor diet and poor health...of course it's going to result in less than nutritious poultry.
- They are not sustainable. Large corporations (three to be exact) own the breeding stock for the Cornish Cross. A farmer has to order his baby chicks from these breeders and have them shipped via US-Mail. He cannot reproduce these birds on his own farm. Worse, the modern meat turkey is completely incapable of self reproduction and requires artificial insemination.
For our farm a "good" chicken means three basic things. Good genetics, good welfare, and good feed, although, I really believe it all starts with good genetics. These supermarket birds have bad and unhealthy lives not necessarily because they live out their lives in a cage or free range facility. They have bad lives because humans have taken advantage of the chicken. For example, say I order 100 Cornish Cross chicks to grow out on my farm. They are going to have a great environment and quality feed, YET, they are still going to grow too fast, have health problems, and in many cases live their short lives in pain. The inhumanity is something we have created. It's exploitation, not stewardship!
The push back I always get is, "well I have not personally created it". And maybe so, you personally have not been responsible for genetically crossing the bird. But in large part most Americans are responsible for eating the bird which pushes the cheap poultry market forward. I would speculate that almost 100% of all restaurant chicken is the Cornish Cross or its offshoot (Freedom Ranger, Sex Link, Label Rouge), and almost all store bought chicken is the Cornish Cross.
So, good poultry welfare and good poultry nutrition all start with genetics. And what is a good genetically sound bird? A heritage breed chicken. If you don't know what a heritage breed chicken is I have more to come on this. But for now, it's an original breed, slow growth, nutritionally sound chicken or turkey, who's genetics are not owned by corporations.
Lastly, we have to be realistic here, and I'm somewhat jumping ahead, but the change has to result as the demand of the people! More than likely you will not find heritage poultry at your market. Most chicken at your local market, I'm guessing, is the Cornish Cross or Freedom Ranger. But it's this way because that is what the market, you the people, have been satisfied with. The farmers will grow heritage poultry! Ask them, demand it (in a nice way), and commit to paying for it in your food budgets. Much blame can be put on the local farmer, but just as much on the consumer…
Change the mindset of the consumer and you change the market!