The Matrix for Chicken May Be the Future of Meat

How can the Earth support 9 billion people?
April 30 2014 10:50 AM

The Future of Chicken

How to mass-produce meat without breeding killer microbes.

The Dutch company Vencomatic started its patio system experiment (above) to solve a persistent problem in chicken-raising: How to keep just-hatched broiler chicks healthy.
The Dutch company Vencomatic started its patio system experiment (above) to solve a persistent problem in chicken-raising: How to keep just-hatched broiler chicks healthy.

Photo courtesy Studio de Brink/Vencomatic Group

From the outside, the long shed off a side road in the Netherlands gives no hint of what it holds. It’s 30 feet wide and as long as an Olympic swimming pool; its metal walls are pierced with tall garage-style doors, and silos are attached to one side. Peter Vingerling, an animal welfare expert who works for the Dutch company Vencomatic, opens a people-sized side door and flips on the lights—and even though I’ve been told what to expect, the barn’s contents make me blink.

I’m standing between two stacks of what looks like industrial shelving that are three times taller than I am. The spaces between the shelves are lightly webbed with thin metal bars. Behind the bars are thousands of 31-day-old broiler chickens. Bright-eyed and healthy-looking, they are pecking at feed dishes, fluffing their new feathers, and edging forward to give visitors a closer look.

This experimental facility outside the small town of Eersel might look like The Matrix for chickens, but it may actually represent the future of meat production. Since January 2008, Vencomatic has raised 1.26 million meat chickens in this warehouse. The birds were healthier and grew faster to greater weights than the industry average—but they never received the routinely administered antibiotics that have become a farm-policy flashpoint in both Europe and the United States.

“We didn’t design this in order to raise chickens without antibiotics,” Vingerling tells me. “We did it to be sustainable and serve animal welfare. But then we noticed that, over a couple of years, we hadn’t had to use any drugs at all.”

Vencomatic’s facility, the prototype of a system it calls “Patio,” sits at the crossroads of two crucial issues in modern agriculture. There’s an urgent push to get antibiotics out of livestock because the drugs create antibiotic resistant microbes that imperil human health. But there’s also deep concern about whether agriculture can feed what is called “the coming 9 billion,” the projected population of the world in 2050—and an uneasy sense that meat production cannot accomplish both goals.

Antibiotics have been an integral component of meat production since the late 1940s, when biologists working for a pharmaceutical firm decided to feed antibiotic-manufacturing residue to chickens. They were looking for a way to boost the nutrient content of cheap feed; what they discovered instead, pretty much by accident, was the powerful effect that traces of antibiotics left in the residue had on the animals consuming them. The chickens gained weight faster than expected, and almost all of modern meat-raising was founded on that discovery. In the United States, chickens, pigs, and cattle now receive almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics per year—several times what humans are prescribed—and almost none of those drugs are used for disease treatment. Animals get antibiotics, instead, either to help them put on weight (probably because the drugs alter the balance of bacteria in their guts), or to prevent diseases that spread in the close quarters of intensive agriculture.

Using antibiotics as growth promoters was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the FDA’s European counterparts in the early 1950s. Within a decade, medical authorities in all those countries started noticing that antibiotic-resistant infections in people were becoming more common. Research linked the occurrence of resistance to the use of agricultural antibiotics as early as the mid-1970s. But antibiotics make meat production less expensive—so when public health has pushed for farm use to be scaled back, organized agriculture has resisted.

The European Union ended the debate in 2006 by simply banning all growth-promoter use, and some countries including the Netherlands have enacted tight restrictions on preventive uses as well. The United States finally addressed growth promoters last December. But the controls created by the FDA—technically, a request that veterinary-pharma companies take “growth promotion” off their drugs’ permitted uses, plus plans to make the drugs prescription-only—are voluntary. Advocates who have been pushing for antibiotic reduction are concerned that the proposals won’t be honored.

Meanwhile, the resistance problem is growing desperate. Within a single week in 2013, the chief medical officer of the United Kingdom called antibiotic resistance as grave a threat as terrorism, and the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded the alarm over “nightmare bacteria.” There’s a growing sense that the world faces a “post-antibiotic era.” This threatens the common medical procedures—surgery, emergency care, childbirth—that everyday life depends on. Already, according to the CDC, 2 million Americans per year contract resistant infections and 23,000 die; according to other research, even things as routine as urinary-tract infections are now becoming life-threatening. So reducing the antibiotic overuse that drives the emergence of resistance, in agriculture and in medicine, feels like a crisis.

It's not possible to know how much of the almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics going into farm animals in the United States each year is given to chickens, because the FDA does not require manufacturers or farmers to break down drug use by species. It’s reasonable, though, to assume that it’s a lot, just because there is so much chicken: The United States produces 9 billion broilers each year. We manage to grow so many because none of those birds live very long: Modern meat chickens reach their 5.8-pound slaughter weight in 47 days, versus 112 days a century ago to reach just 2.5 pounds.

Animal welfare campaigners say that extremely rapid growth, plus cross-breeding to produce more breast meat, is intrinsically bad for birds, creating chickens that can’t fly, walk, or even stand for long. “Meat chickens’ squalid conditions in factory farms, and especially their selective breeding for fast growth, leave them weak and sick, lying in their own waste, so the industry feeds them antibiotics to compensate,” says Suzanne McMillan, senior director of farm animal welfare strategy for the ASPCA, which last year published a detailed critique of fast-growing chicken breeds.

Better conditions for chickens, called “higher welfare,” has become an industry buzzword; even the National Chicken Council, the trade group for conventional intensive growers, has a broiler-welfare plan. Whole Foods sells higher-welfare chicken as part of its five-step certification program for its meat suppliers, and higher-welfare campaigns have been started by organizations ranging from the Humane Society of the United States to Compassion in World Farming, which on April 23 launched a “Better Chicken Initiative” backed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Higher-welfare campaigners want to see chickens have the freedom to live like chickens: with exercise and fresh air, without crippling inbred defects, and without being dosed with drugs. That works well on small farms and in warm climates where chickens can live outside easily. But it becomes a conundrum when farmers want to meet demand by raising large numbers of birds, especially in darker, colder areas such as the northern United States and much of Western Europe. What constitutes “indoor higher welfare” for chickens, and how it scales, is still an open question.

To which Vencomatic thinks it has the answer.

The Dutch company started its patio system experiment to solve a persistent problem in chicken-raising: How to keep just-hatched broiler chicks healthy. A meat chicken’s life breaks down like this: 18 days incubating in the shell; three days to hatch; and 42 to 47 days growing to marketable size. Incubating and emerging take place at a hatchery, and growing takes place at a farm—and the transport between the two puts so much stress on the new chicks that a certain percentage either die or become permanently frail. Giving antibiotics, especially during the chicks’ first week, solves that problem, but the Netherlands and EU bans make that impossible now.

Vencomatic’s innovation was to hatch the birds where they will be raised. The company’s first step was building a rack that positions ready-to-hatch eggs above the barn floor. When the chicks pop out, they tumble off the rack into their growing area and can eat and drink immediately. That might seem unremarkable, but it is actually rare. Broiler chicks aren’t fed at a hatchery; they don’t eat until they reach the farm where they will grow to chickenhood. The trip is supposed to happen soon after they emerge — but since chicks are hatched in large batches and don’t all emerge at the same moment, some can wait two days for their first meal.

“That’s 5 percent of a chick’s life,” Vingerling points out. “The industry has always said that chicks recover from that, but it turns out not to be true.”

Changing when the chicks eat strengthens the birds’ immune systems, so fewer die or fail to thrive. Armed with that discovery, the company re-engineered what a “barn” represents. They created ventilation systems to suck out fumes and exchangers that scavenge heat, to save energy costs while keeping barns at a uniform temperature. The most radical step was housing the birds in the shelf-like stacked units. It keeps them at eye level for easy inspection (a structure like a library ladder slides along the outside) and permits a substrate of plastic under the bedding, which is more sanitary than the dirt or concrete of traditional barns. The attention to welfare extends to the end of the birds’ life. Traditionally, chickens going to slaughter are grabbed by the legs by “catchers” who walk through the barns. In the Vencomatic system, the plastic under the birds’ feet rolls slowly forward on a conveyor belt, dumping the litter and sliding the birds into crates untouched.

The Vencomatic system answers two of the three concerns for modern meat production. It eliminates the need for antibiotics by reducing stress and boosting the birds’ immune systems. And it keeps volume high: The experimental facility raises 30,000 broilers at a time, and the company has sold larger versions that house up to 250,000 birds in a barn.

The system justifies itself economically, though it is undeniably expensive, costing from 4 to 12 euros per “bird place” depending on a barn’s size. Because more birds survive, farmers’ yield is increased, and because the Vencomatic system earned a sustainability certification from the Dutch government, growers can charge more for the meat. (In the Dutch market, it is priced at about 8 euros per kilo—about 25 percent more than conventional chicken, but about one-third the price of organic—and is being purchased by food-service firms that serve schools and hospitals.) Customers come mostly from other cold-climate areas where raising birds outdoors would be impractical: The company has installed patio barns holding hundreds of thousands of birds each in Russia, Korea, and Hungary, with three more coming in the Netherlands this year. 

But the third item on the wish list for remaking poultry production is improved animal welfare. Vencomatic believes its system guarantees that; it sought input from the Dutch Society for Protection of Animals while designing the system. But it is not yet clear whether other advocates would agree. The patio system reduces stress, improves survival and zeroes out antibiotic use, but it still looks like a warehouse. When most people envision a virtuous chicken farm, that is probably not what they see.

Campaigners who focus on animal welfare want to see high-tech systems create what old-style farmers provide: natural light, fresh air, and the ability to move around and exercise. From that point of view, an indoor operation such as Vencomatic’s gets us halfway there. “Higher welfare indoor systems that require lower antibiotic use are a critical stepping stone toward a healthier, more sustainable model of food production,” says Leah Garces, the U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming. “It is a tool for weaning us off our current system.”

In the short term, though, the ability to dispense with routine antibiotics may make the strongest case for high-tech indoor chicken production—because while the “coming 9 billion” are due in 35 years, intractable antibiotic resistance is here now.

Reporting for this story was supported in part by the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Correction, May 2, 2014: The original photo accompanying this article misstated that the chickens were part of the patio system. It was a photo of broiler breeders in a poultry house. The photo has been changed.

Maryn McKenna blogs for Wired and is the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil.

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