RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend a few minutes now talking about chickens because when they are raised specifically for their meat, chickens can grow really fast. And that rapid growth can make their lives miserable. Here is NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: A century ago Americans didn't eat much chicken. It was pretty expensive and your depression-era chicken was actually kind of scrawny. It took a bird about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. Today it's a different story entirely. The chickens in this long, dimly lit barn in North Carolina are just 12 days old but growing fast. Compared to their ancestors a century ago, these birds will grow to twice the size in half the time. William Muir, a poultry geneticist at Purdue University, says it's not what the chickens are eating. This change is a triumph of poultry breeding.
WILLIAM MUIR: This is what genetics does is that we can actually make more from less.
CHARLES: It wasn't magic, he says, or genetic engineering. All they did was they got their fastest-growing chickens to mate with each other, generation after generation.
MUIR: We just breed the best to the best and you get the best.
CHARLES: The best at putting on muscle very quickly. These meat chickens, called broilers, are now very different from the chickens that lay our eggs. It's been great for the poultry industry. But according to Muir, it's not so great for the chickens themselves.
MUIR: We're having problems with legs. The birds' legs can't support their weight. We have a lot of problems with splayed legs, joint problems. And this is a major well-being concern if the bird can't walk.
CHARLES: Studies have observed these problems in anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of commercial broilers. These chickens are slaughtered when they're still young. But others are kept in order to reproduce. These are the so-called breeder flocks - the source of the billions of broilers that people eat. And because these birds live longer, they have a special problem.
MUIR: They are so big and heavy, if we let them keep on eating they couldn't reproduce. So we have to get them on a diet, a severe diet. And they are always hungry.
CHARLES: For all these reasons, some animal welfare advocates have been calling on poultry companies to turn back the clock - back to slower-growing breeds of chickens. And these breeds do exist. Poultry producers can order them from the same big-chicken breeding companies that created the fast-growing chickens. There is increasing demand for them in Europe. In the U.S. they're mainly used by farmers who want to raise their chickens the old-fashioned way - running around outdoors. Here is Theo Weening, the global meat buyer for Whole Foods Market.
THEO WEENING: I'm on my way this afternoon to Arkansas to Crystal Lake Farms. He uses a slow-growing chicken at this time.
CHARLES: Whole Foods now wants all of its suppliers - even those raising large numbers of broilers indoors - to shift over to slower-growing chickens. The shift will take eight years. Whole Foods and a partner group it's set up, the Global Animal Partnership, say that it will affect 277 million birds each year. That's about 3 percent of the country's broilers.
WEENING: So it's a much better, healthier chicken and at the same time a much flavorful chicken, as well.
CHARLES: But Weening admits there will be a cost to this shift. It will take more feed to produce a pound of chicken meat. According to some estimates, 25 percent more. After the Whole Foods announcement, the National Chicken Council, which represents the major poultry producers, released a statement disputing the idea that faster-growing chickens are less healthy or suffering. The Chicken Council also pointed out the benefits of the industry's push for ever greater efficiency over the years. It's cut the cost of chicken and made it the most popular meat in America. Dan Charles, NPR News.