Whole Foods doesn't want to push its chickens out of the nest too soon.
Working with the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), the natural and organic foods retailer will be replacing all of its chickens bred to rapidly pack on pounds with slower-growing breeds by 2024. The GAP says this will support breeds with better genetics and better living conditions, which means better-tasting meat.
So, the chicken farms that supply the company's stores will be repopulated with breeds like the Red Ranger and Naked Neck, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Whole Foods Market is setting an important precedent as it is reportedly the first major food business to announce the change, as top meatpackers have been largely criticized by consumer groups and public health officials for breeding chickens that rapidly pack on weight.
Obviously, fast-growing chicken breeds are much more profitable than slow-breeding chickens (which grow 23 percent more slowly) and represent 98 percent of all commercially available chicken meat in North America. But, as the GAP notes, this type of breeding has "detrimental impacts on the welfare of broiler chickens, including immune and musculoskeletal problems, resulting in limitations to the bird's ability to express natural behaviors like perching, flying, and even walking."
Have you ever seen those massive chicken breasts at the grocery store? Think about how unhealthy it is for the chicken to be that top-heavy. And you thought you had back problems.
“It’s better for the animal but also for the quality of the product,” said Theo Weening, global meat buyer for Whole Foods.
Whole Foods is also requiring that the chickens from their providers have better living conditions: less crowding (stocking density of six pounds/square foot or less, which is 25% more space that usual), use of natural light (conventional birds are kept in a dimly lit space), and improvements to straw bales and perches.
This is a major win for consumer groups and public health officials who have also pushed Big Food companies like McDonald's and Subway to scale back antibiotic use in animals that provide their meat, and General Mills and Nestle have both pledged to buy more cage-free eggs.
Let's hope that more companies continue to follow in the its big footsteps. And they probably will—as Americans, particularly millennials, have made it abundantly clear that they want healthier, more responsibly sourced food that they can feel good about eating.