In this excerpt from Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, and the Fight for the Future of Meat, author Chloe Sorvino addresses poultry genetics and how breeding and feed go hand in hand.
Chapter 12: Unwinding Big Chicken's Control of the Genetic Code
Cooks Venture is now hyper-focused on creating alternative genetics and feed, which could fundamentally challenge the existing structure of the poultry industry. That’s a monumental task, but Wadiak may just be the founder to take a bite out of industrial chicken.
Wadiak taught me that the quality of the meat we consume fundamentally depends on two things. The first is the feed the animals consume, which is usually a farmer’s biggest cost. The second is the genetics from which the animals are bred, which is predetermined in industrial contracts.
Cooks Venture can uniquely tackle both challenges, in a way that no other company I know of can. Changes to feed cannot fully take place without changes to genetics. Animals need to be able to digest whatever they are eating. Mainstream hatcheries, where chicken growers pick up their birds at just a few days old, have bred generations of chickens to be better suited to the feed they eat, mainly commodity corn. If you want to change the feed, you also must change the genetics. It’s admittedly wonky, but the potential is big. If Cooks Venture is a success, it may build a viable alternative for supplying meat at scale, completely outside the industrialized agribusiness system. That said, whatever is built could become its own behemoth.
Most of the nine billion chicken that Americans consume each year - from conventional to free-range to organic and even most locally raised - are the same kind of breed, a Cornish Cross. Almost everyone ends up eating the same kind of chicken, no matter where it’s purchased from. There’s a big difference in price between conventional and heritage breeds for beef and pork because the genetics have been separated and built into the marketing. For example, America’s prized Angus cattle, the most popular kind of beef sold, was brought over from England, where it became known for fatty marbling in the 1870s. But eating chicken is a relative novelty. Modern birds have been bred to grow super fast, which means cheaply. Cornish Cross birds have earned a reputation for breast meat prone to woody textures and tasteless, bland flavor.
In fact, genetics industry experts estimate that 99 percent of all chicken sold in America can trace its lineage back to one of two companies, Tyson-owned Cobb-Vantress and Germany-based and privately held EW Group, a genetics conglomerate that owns American firms Aviagen and Hubbard and is backed by a private billionaire named Erich Wesjohann and his family. These two conglomerates have cornered the $28 billion market selling their breeds since the 1980s. The most common are the Cobb 500 and the Ross 308, both variants of Cornish Cross. These birds are bow-legged and can be sickly so that it’s hard for them to leave their houses.
Breeding works like the movie Back to the Future: There’s a great-grandparent chicken, and then a grandparent, a parent, and then fourth-generation Michael J. Fox. That is the broiler. It takes around two and a half years to complete the cycle. Over time, like Michael J. Fox, disappearing from the picture of the movie as he travels back in time, adjustments can be made. Geneticists decide whether to prioritize traits like straighter legs or red tail feathers, and eventually the traits emerge. Within a few weeks, their cousins arrive where they once existed.
A Cornish Cross goes from zero to harvest weight of six pounds in thirty-five to forty-seven days, unlike Wadiak’s birds, which take around sixty days. A heritage breed must spend at least sixteen weeks, or 112 days, maturing before going to market, per industry association standards. The Cornish Cross’s quick lifespan is why those chicken breasts in the grocery store are usually double the size of your fist. Over decades, the birds have been selected to have very large muscle structures, particularly in the breast meat. The breed tends to have vascularized muscle cells and tissues, meaning that a capillary network capable of delivering nutrients to the cells forms inside the tissues. When the chickens drink water, the hydration fills up those cells, and they actually get bigger. That means the labels that claim 5 percent water added are barely scratching the surface. Water is ingrained in the tissue itself, which is not showing up on any label.
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From RAW DEAL by Chloe Sorvino. Copyright © 2022 by Chloe Sorvino. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.