chicken on snail

Why do slow-growing chickens cost almost twice as much?

On ‘slow-growing’ chickens, an in-depth study is needed to clarify the pros and cons for the consumer and the environmental impact.

Chicken meat is still cheap, but in several supermarkets you can find packages from ‘slow-growing’ poultry breeds that are 30 to 100 per cent more expensive than other breeds. Why? The first evidence is that if the chicken stays longer on a farm, it is obvious that its cost to the consumer will be higher. These are less efficient breeds compared to conventional breeds and with genetic characteristics that require longer growing times and this means, as already mentioned, higher maintenance costs, so more food, more water, more space in the sheds…

But to be more precise, we need to take a few steps back, to 1948, the date that established the turning point in the USA. Until that time, the breeds that had developed over the centuries in the world were the result of continuous artisanal selections, i.e. spontaneous cross-breeding and choices made by individual breeders for their own food supply or small trade. At that time, there were at least 300 breeds around the world. Breeds selected over the centuries to increase egg production. Poultry meat was a marginal topic that only interested old hens and male chicks. All these breeds are today classified as ‘hardy’, as opposed to modern hybrid breeds. Some of the chickens considered rustic today come from these ‘hand-picked breeds’ in the past, as is well described in this National Geographic article.

The two world wars opened up emergencies that impacted the food supply system, and the need was created to meet a greater demand for meat for the armies. The problem was partly addressed during the economic renaissance as income became more available. Therefore, in 1948, a competition was launched in the USA to identify the ‘modern chicken’ for meat production, obtained by hybridising breeds. The competition was ‘the first official stimulus’ to optimise poultry farming.

The call to select the most efficient breeds was instrumental in the development of breeding techniques. From that moment on, a ‘competition’ was triggered that led to an improvement in the concept of hybridisation and food conversion, i.e. how many kilograms of feed are needed to obtain one kilogram of meat or eggs. In this way, an attempt was made to meet the growing demand for world food by paying attention to the selection of breeds that were more efficient precisely in terms of food conversion. The pre-1948 breeds, the ones now called traditional, continued to exist but lost their economic importance.

Slow growth= higher costs for all

Continuing the search for ‘efficient hybrids’, the poultry industry has obtained what are now called ‘conventional breeds’ characterised by an ‘unbeatable’ growth speed and efficiency compared to ‘hardy’ breeds… which include the slow-growing ones still demanded by consumers with a particular conception of animal welfare and who appreciate the aroma, flavour and texture of the meat of these animals that remind them of the idea of the ‘grandmother’s farm’ chicken. But slow-growing chickens also cost twice as much as ‘conventional’ ones.

It should be pointed out that for years, the selection of fast-growing conventional breeds focused on lower mortality and disease resistance in addition to feed efficiency with a smaller environmental footprint. Modern poultry farming has significantly reduced the use of water, farmland, electricity and other resources while also achieving better commercial results. It is worth mentioning that to date (2022), the fast-growing conventional chicken industry has managed to reduce its impact by 50% to produce the same numbers as in 1965, consuming 75% less resources, reducing its impact on greenhouse gas emissions by 36%, farmland used by 72% and water used by 58% (working on reducing waste). All these ‘achievements’ in terms of sustainability were only possible by breeding conventional fast-growing breeds.

An environmental and economic sustainability that is not achieved with slow-growing chickens, which represent a small share of the European market and entail much higher costs and resource consumption. This small ‘market share’ is also difficult to define because breeding criteria are different in different countries.

Demand in Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece) is oriented towards particular organoleptic qualities that are however very subjective, preferring chickens with a ‘traditional’ appearance, tending to be coloured (more or less uniform brown).

Northern European demand, on the other hand, is culturally more focused on animal welfare and the use of slower-growing animals (the animal must not grow more than 50 grams per day).

Each European country has its own specific procedures for the recognition of a ‘slow-growing’ genetic type, so that in this case the term ‘breed’ would in fact be improper, as these are genotypes (i.e. generated by crosses between breeds). For these chickens In Italy, there is only one specification in force since 2005 that provides, among other things, the information ‘slow-growing genotype’ or ‘slow-growing genotype’.

Slow growth = longer cooking time

The use of slow-growing genotypes on the market is certainly niche and potentially growing. These are special products, which due to their small size do not lend themselves to classic portioning and are therefore cooked whole, requiring longer cooking times. This is also why they do not meet the preference of all consumers, but only of a niche.

To meet this alternative demand, the poultry industry has two options:

  1. Returning to the use of traditional hardy breeds, with high breeding costs that spill over into the final price
  2. Developing new slow breeds, selecting animals appropriately so as to still choose the most efficient ones to meet both the demand of animal rights activists and that of breeders trying to reduce production costs and thus the shelf price. The latter is a choice that some breeders are making on their own.

In general, slow-growing chickens still have higher costs than conventional, mainly because they eat more and grow less and in more time. Costs that inevitably fall on the price to the public.


The Editors of M.A.C. – More About Chicken