Ethical Farming: Pondering the Super Chicken

But in late September Johannes Remmel, the agriculture minister of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, decided to intervene. "This practice is absolutely horrifying. We cannot allow animals to become the object of an overheated and industrialized system," says Remmel, who is a member of the environment-friendly Green Party. The minister has decreed local authorities ban the killing of male one-day-old chicks within the next year. Lower Saxony, the state with by far the largest hatcheries, will perhaps soon follow suit. Remmel's fellow party member and counterpart in Lower Saxony, Christian Meyer, is currently exploring the possibility of introducing a ban.

The root cause of the mass killings is the industrialization of poultry production. Up until the 1960s, chickens were raised together with many other animals on farms. The hens laid eggs, and when their productivity declined, they ended up as stewing hens. The roosters were sold on the market as broilers. As the demand for eggs and poultry grew, breeders sought to optimize the animals -- laying hens to be lean and tough; broilers to be meaty. Since then, there have been egg-laying breeds and meat breeds.

Numbers Game

The specially bred laying hens manage to produce 310 eggs a year, 100 more than their ancestors 50 years ago. But they hardly put on any meat. By contrast, meat chicken breeds weigh 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) within five to six weeks. Then they are slaughtered before they even become sexually mature.

These days, the industry uses virtually only hybrids: high-performance chickens produced by crossing a number of breeds. This is a good business for companies like Lohmann because the animals -- in contrast to purebred birds -- cannot be bred on farms. Chicken farmers have to continuously buy new chicks from the breeders.

Chicken breeders have even managed to introduce a gene whose sole purpose is to make it easier to identify the sex of the chicks. Males and females have slightly different color feathers, allowing them to be quickly sorted for culling after they hatch.

The dual-purpose chicken bred by Preisinger could put an end to the massacre of male chicks that has existed since the introduction of the hybrids. But there are problems: the animals are still not very efficient, despite all the breeder's efforts. "The hens lay fewer eggs than the egg-laying hybrids. Their brothers need 50 percent more feed than conventional broilers before they are ready for slaughter," admits Preisinger.

Consumer Obstacles

Furthermore, broilers sold in the supermarket have always appeared round and compact, while the dual-purpose chicken tends to be long and bony. Where hybrid meat chickens have breast meat, the new breed only has a thin, protruding breastbone. On the other hand, the bird has more meaty thighs. "Consumers will have to want something like this," says the top breeder.

But customers -- and thus also the retail food trade -- yearn for light breast meat; the rear third of the bird's body is largely unsellable. To make matters worse, the eggs of the dual-purpose chicken are two to three cents more expensive. Many customers are particularly price-conscious when purchasing eggs.

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