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Washington -- Think Americans are obese? Well, what about chickens? They're fatter, too. In fact, about 20 percent heavier than they were 50 years ago. Never before has the chicken been so big. Why? Because people like to eat them. Americans now eat an average 52 pounds of chicken a year -- three times what they did in 1950, the government says.
Despite the popularity of buffalo wings, they mostly eat breast meat, buying frozen dinners and other ready-to-east meals based on how easy they are to prepare. To keep pace with the demand for breast meat, the poultry industry has changed the way it breeds and raises chickens. The average chicken now has a thicker breast, fatter wings and chubbier drumsticks.
Paul Siegel, a geneticist at Virginia Tech, said eating habits certainly have changed the industry. "In the last decade, it used to be you had the whole bird," said Siegel. "Then, you started to see the shift from the whole bird to the cut-up bird -- the chicken dinners, the nuggets and all of those things."
The average broiler chicken -- the most common breed in the poultry industry -- now weighs around 5 pounds, about one-fifth more than in the 1950s.
Siegel noted that a small amount of the extra weight in raw chicken comes from water -- a fact that cattle ranchers, worried about competition from poultry, tried to exploit in the 1990s. They pushed the Agriculture Department to limit to the amount of water allowed in packaged poultry and meat, in regulations that will take effect next August. Raw chicken holds water because processors rinse the birds in cold water to chill it. Raw beef, on the other hand, often is air-chilled.
Broiler chickens grow quickly because of advancements in breeding. They are really a hybrid made from various types of chickens genetically bred to have fatter breasts and be resistant to disease. A broiler chicken makes weight for slaughter after just 35 days on the farm. It used to take as many as 90 days for the birds to pack on enough pounds to be sent to market. They also are bred so they do not need to be fed very much grain. Farmers in the 1950s fed chickens 3 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat. Now, they feed just 1.7 pounds of grain for every pound of meat, Siegel said.
Harvey Blackburn, director of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation Office of Laboratory, noted that livestock and poultry breeders were attempting to grow huge animals at the beginning of the 1900s. In some cases, such as with beef cattle, they succeeded. But in others, farmers quickly learned that the more meat they wanted on an animal, the more grain they had to feed it. Many decided to forgo the extra expense. In the case of chickens, "potentially, they could have been bigger than they are today," Blackburn said. "It's all related to what the market is demanding. We try to optimize body size for the production system that people are raising animals in. Sometimes we get them too big, and productivity and profitability decrease." Blackburn said the current 5-pound chicken seems to be selling well.
But Karen Davis, an animal welfare activist who keeps a chicken sanctuary in Virginia [and is the president of United Poultry Concerns] , said that while the poultry industry may have found its perfect size in broilers, the chickens are living less comfortably. "They put on too much body weight in too short of an amount of time for their skeleton to support that weight," said Davis. "They've been growing at a rate of about four times faster than what a normal chicken would grow. But the skeletal system is growing at a normal rate, so the skeletal system is very soft and malleable. They're very unhealthy." Davis said that some producers also are using antibiotics normally intended for fighting disease to help their chickens gain weight quickly.
Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said most growers have cut back on their use of antibiotics and have stopped using them altogether within a few weeks of sending them to slaughter so that there won't be any residues in the meat.