United Poultry Concerns October 7 , 2003

Washington Post Article on New USDA Poultry Categories

The following article in today’s edition of The Washington Post concludes with a quotation by UPC President Karen Davis concerning the forced rapid growth of chickens and turkeys and plans by the US Department of Agriculture to reclassify chickens and turkeys to reflect the inhumane practice of forcing these birds to grow too fast for their hearts, lungs, and bones to accommodate the growth rate.

Information on submitting a letter to the editor can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/q0b8

The Federal Register notice on poultry categories can be found at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/99-017P.htm

The Washington Post, Cindy Skrzycki, October 7, 2003

These are not your grandmother's birds. Thirty years ago, life in the coop lasted longer and pedigrees mattered. A broiler under 13 weeks of age was known as a young chicken. A roaster was slightly older, three to five months. The parents of a Rock Cornish game hen were a purebred Cornish and a purebred Plymouth Rock. A young turkey was eight months if a day.

Poultry now comes to market fatter and faster, because of crossbreeding, controlled indoor growing conditions, and rations that are mixed to produce the big, meaty chickens that become the boneless breasts and chicken nuggets that Americans love. It now takes a mere six to seven weeks to "grow out" a broiler from chick to "processing"; roasters are ready for the oven in 10 to 12 weeks.

Regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who are responsible for truth in labeling of poultry and other commodities, have noted the revolution in chicken-house operations run by large processors such as Tyson and Perdue. So after a couple of years of study, the department proposed updating the classifications for several kinds of poultry classifications, lowering the age for what defines Cornish game hens, broilers, roasters, capons, and fryer-roaster and young turkeys. The old classes, or "standards of identity," of these birds were based on much longer estimates of their maturity.

The proposal reflects what the $40 billion-a-year chicken industry knows: Young is better. The young birds, the USDA notes, have tender meat and smooth skin. They can be broiled, barbecued, roasted or fried. They can do it all, as opposed to the hen, fowl, baking chicken or stewing chicken that would be classified as an "adult female more than 10 months of age with meat less tender than that of a roaster or roasting chicken and a nonflexible breastbone tip." They take time to make tasty.

Young, fat birds also fetch more in the grocery store. Some chickens that would have been sold as broilers may, under the proposed rule, sneak into the roaster category, which generally means 8 to 13 cents more per pound. Getting out their calculators, USDA regulators figure that would be a 40-to-65-cent increase in the price of a five-pound bird. The cost effect "should be minimized," however, the regulators figure, since those birds "most likely are already being marketed as roasters."

Revising the standards would have some effect on large-volume customers, including the federal government. Another part of the Agriculture Department, the Agriculture Marketing Service, bought $207 million worth of poultry in fiscal 2002 for federal nutrition programs, including the school lunch program. Craig Morris, associate deputy administrator for poultry programs at the marketing service, said a rule change would ensure that buyers get what they pay for, since the classes are used for price specifications. The classifications also are the basis of the quality grades the USDA assigns to poultry.

To regulators, the rule is simply a case of the label catching up to market practices. "More than likely, the products on the market and their labels aren't based on current industry standards," said Robert Post, director of the labeling and consumer protection staff at Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which issued the proposal. "We need to ensure the label is accurate. Rules could now allow for a broiler under 13 weeks. We enforce the industry standard, so we need to change our regulations. We are assuring that consumers who pick up a broiler anywhere in the United States, or an import, have age and distinguishing features that are the same."

While they were at it, regulators also cleaned out the cobwebs of some of the more obscure classifications for guineas, geese and ducks. They suggested that a Rock Cornish game hen be simply a chicken less than five weeks of age, of either sex, weighing less than five pounds, since there are no more purebred Cornish or Rock lines. They asked the industry to comment on a proposal to throw out age as a basis of classifying poultry. Instead, weight would be used. For example, a roaster would be five pounds no matter how old it was. And while the proposal is silent on what a silly old goose might be, it did offer a not totally appetizing definition of an old goose, as an adult of either sex "that has toughened flesh and a hardened windpipe."

There isn't likely to be much opposition from industry groups, which have been working on speed and size since the 1950s. "Age is not important. It's getting the size of the bird you want and selling it at that time," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents chicken producers and processors. "But if they want to have these rules, it's fine with us. They follow industry categories." Similarly, Alice Johnson, president of the National Turkey Federation, said the proposal reflects "improved genetics and husbandry practices": The turkey industry now can produce a 12-to-14-pounder in six months. [For more information on the turkey industry, see: http://www.eatturkey.com especially the "About Turkey" section on the Pressroom page.] Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the changes wouldn't affect the company because its roasters already are fully grown at eight weeks.

Animal rights groups, however, see the proposal as a USDA stamp of approval on industry practices that they oppose. "We're concerned about the well-being of birds, and we don't support raising five-to-six-pound birds in five to six weeks. To the extent the regulations validate, aid or abet the forced rapid growth of birds, we don't support that," said Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns in Machipongo, Va.

United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. http://www.upc-online.org

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

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