A Happy Chicken Is … A Tastier Chicken?


“We are going to go beyond what a chicken needs and give chickens what they want,” said Jim Perdue, whose grandfather founded the eponymous business in 1920, to the New York Times.

No more dark barns. Brighter ones – with windows, no less! – ideally without the continuous din of thousands of chickens saying whatever it is that penned-up (if not caged-up) chickens say. Maybe they’ve been asking for healthier quarters, less crowding, maybe even a choice between ‘meat’ (in the form of ground-up bones and an awful assortment of offal) and ‘fish’ (even if it is ground up, bones included, and served in a near-powder form mixed with enough antibiotics to kill a horse (or assorted  ailments likely to affect chickens).

The Times reported Saturday (June 26) on how, at a Seaford, Delaware, chicken-raising facility – to call it a ‘house’ would grossly abuse the latter term; to call it a ‘factory farm’ would fly in the face of the expensive efforts Perdue, like a few other chicken producers, are undergoing to both treat their ‘product’ – their chickens – more humanely but also to get them to look and taste more like chickens did before the era of mass chicken production dawned in the mid-20th Century.

In the 1960’s, in New York City, one could go into an A&P supermarket on 6th Avenue and buy on-sale chicken for $0.19 (19¢) per pound. Today, that same factory-produced, way-too-fatty chicken would cost more like $1.19 per pound – and be even more laden with antibiotics and other chemicals employed primarily to grow chickens incredibly fast – “forced to grow 65 times faster than their bodies normally would, and the industry continually seeks to increase their growth rate,” says the website freefromharm.org.

I was fortunate a couple of years ago to be at the right place at the right time, when an Amish farmer a couple of counties away was taking orders for his field-raised, antibiotic-free chickens. Foolishly, I ordered only one.

I grew up in a time (the late 1940’s – early ‘50’s) when chickens were produced one at a time, at the pace nature dictated. There was no such thing as antibiotic feeding at that time; the chickens I occasionally saw slaughtered with a single swipe of an ax as the undoubtedly-unhappy bird was held down over a tree-stump chopping block were as ‘pure’ as anyone could want a chicken to be – and they tasted like it, whether portioned and fried or cooked whole in the oven or under the broiler.

An up-the-road neighbors is raising chickens facing as similar fate. But will his be as ‘natural-tasting’ as the Amish guy’s? Probably not. The neighbors’ are penned, and probably are fed a commercial meal geared toward rapid growth.

Jim Perdue, whose grandfather I met on several occasions, is due a lot of praise for the efforts his company, one of the largest chicken-processing operations in the U.S., is making to get back, as far as is commercial practical, to natural chicken-raising.

Clearly, though, there is a limit to how far mass producers of any foodstuff such as chickens – which, with turkeys, account for 99% of land animals slaughtered for food in the U.S. – can profitably go as they seek to meet the growing demand of consumers, and the ongoing pressure of humane interest groups.

But the good news, for chickens and those who consume them, is that efforts are being made to move them from embryo to appetite-satisfying in ways that will benefit both the creatures and those who consume them.

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