WASHINGTON – The National Chicken Council (NCC) is urging retail, foodservice, consumers and non-governmental agencies to invest in studying the impact of “slower growing” broilers on the US market. The NCC released a study, “The Sustainability Impacts of Slow-Growing Broiler Production in the US,” detailing the environmental, economic and sustainability implications of raising slower growing chickens. The NCC’s study suggests sharp price increases in chicken and in the use of water, air, fuel and land. NCC is calling for more research on bird health and welfare relevant to growth rates to ensure it’s grounded in scientific data, as well.

“The National Chicken Council and its members remain committed to chicken welfare, continuous improvement and respecting consumer choice — including the growing market for a slower growing bird,” said Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., NCC senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs in a statement. “However, these improvements must be dictated by science and data — not activists' emotional rhetoric — which is why we support further research on the topic of chicken welfare and growth rates.”

Following are environmental implications if one-third of broiler production switched to a slower growing breed, according to the study.

• Nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced.

• Additional feed needed: Enough to fill 670,000 additional tractor trailers on the road per year, using millions more gallons of fuel annually.

• Additional land needed: The additional land needed to grow the feed (corn and soybeans) would be 7.6 million acres/year, or roughly the size of the entire state of Maryland.

• Additional manure output: Slower growing chickens will also stay on the farm longer, producing 28.5 billion additional pounds of manure annually. That’s enough litter to create a pile on a football field that is 27 times higher than a typical NFL stadium.

• Additional water needed: 5.1 billion additional gallons of water per year for the chickens to drink (excluding additional irrigation water that would be required to grow the additional feed).

The economic implication of 1.5 million fewer broilers equates to 27.5 billion fewer chicken meals per year, according to the study. The cost of one-third of production switching to a slower growing breed would be $9 billion. Also, the study states that the reduction in supply would significantly decrease chicken exports to more than 100 countries worldwide.

The NCC states livability, disease, condemnation, digestive and leg health reflect a national broiler health that’s as healthy as it’s ever been, according to all current and measurable data.

“We are the first ones to know that success should not come at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the birds,” Peterson said. “Without healthy chickens, our members would not be in business.”

Peterson went on to say, “We don’t know if raising chickens slower than they are today would advance our progress on health and welfare — which is why NCC has expressed its support to the US Poultry and Egg Association for research funding in this area. What we do know is there are tradeoffs and that it is important to take into consideration chicken welfare, sustainability, and providing safe, affordable food for consumers. There may not be any measurable welfare benefits to the birds, despite these negative consequences. Research will help us identify if there are additional, unforeseen consequences of raising birds for longer.”

Salisbury, Maryland-based Perdue Farms said it’s also investigating the implications of growth rates, not only in broilers, but also in breeders and the flocks that provide eggs. The third-generation, family owned food and agriculture company agreed with the NCC that more research is needed to gain a better understanding of slower growing birds on all levels.

“We began 18 months ago exploring various ways to slow growth of existing breeds as well as utilizing heritage breeds to determine ways that have a meaningful, positive impact on the wellbeing of our chickens and that address consumer concerns about how their food is raised,” Perdue said in a statement.