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Protecting Heritage Poultry: New Standard Breed Inspections

10 November 2015


Christine Heinrichs is a freelance agricultural journalist based the US. She's the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, and a regular contributor to a variety of poultry publications.

With increased interest in heritage breed poultry, the American Poultry Association is stepping up to promote standard breeds. Its new Flock Inspection Program will certify consumer chicken and other poultry with the APA’s imprimatur.

“We have come to grips with how we will inspect for market quality and how the flock matches the standard,” said Dave Anderson, APA president.

Not every chicken with a Standard name will make a good, productive flock. Hatchery stock may have unacceptable defects. Birds bred for exhibition may have lost their productivity. Chickens are more than pretty feathers.

“They need to have good muscle development, fertility, and egg production,” said Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. “This programme should help people improve quality and production of these birds.”

In the past, the APA inspected flocks, but abandoned that responsibility 50 years ago.

Commercial poultry farms overwhelmed smaller Standard breed flocks after World War II.

The chicken meat business turned to genetically similar industrially developed chickens, which are unable to mate and reproduce naturally.

They grow to market size in six to seven weeks. If allowed to grow to maturity, they are hardly able even to walk. Their underdeveloped immune systems can’t protect them against even ordinary diseases.

Modern hybrids with flashy names such as Freedom Ranger and Golden Nugget have been developed to take advantage of the market for chickens that are raised in better conditions. They may be raised on pasture and fed an organic diet, but their genetics doom them. They may have unseen internal abnormalities such as cardiac and skeletal problems.

"Chickens have several serious welfare problems that come from bad genetics and can be fixed only with good genetics," animal welfare advisor Temple Grandin wrote in her book, Animals Make Us Human.

Standard breeds have recognisable identity and documented history. Reviving the inspection programme in the 21st century will help standard breed producers justify the higher prices their products deserve.

The APA Standard of Perfection lists all the breeds that have been described and officially recognised for exhibition at poultry shows. That’s about 50 different breeds in hundreds of varieties. The first Standard was published in 1874. Dates are given for every recognised breed.

That original Standard was written to improve the quality, uniformity and marketability of poultry flocks. Over the years, its emphasis changed to focus on poultry exhibitions. Utility became an afterthought, although the Standard still lists Economic Qualities in its breed descriptions.

‘Standard’ is the operant word, meaning breeds that have been documented and officially recognised. Heritage, historic, traditional, antique, heirloom and other words are descriptive, but their meanings vary slightly and can be stretched and distorted to cover anything. ‘Standard’ is a word with a defined meaning: If the breed wasn’t in the Standard before 1950, it can’t get the certification.

APA qualified judges will inspect flocks for their adherence to the APA written Standard.

“The birds must have the general conformation of their breed,” said Mr Anderson. “The flock cannot have more than two per cent significant disqualifications such as roach back. The flock has to have less than 15 per cent minor variations from the standard, such as the wrong eye colour or side sprigs on the comb. Of course, the entire flock has to be healthy.”

Judge-inspectors can offer advice to help the producer improve his flock. They can help the farmer pick out the best birds for breeding. Their knowledge, and that of the Standard breed producers they inspect, will help USDA inspectors learn how to grade Standard-bred birds.

“They are not just coming to judge your birds,” said Mr Reese. “They are coming to help you. It should be a learning experience.” 

Mr Reese is the leading Standard breed poultry producer in the country. He currently supplies Emmer & Co. with up to 2,000 chickens every three weeks and Heritage Foods USA with 500 every three weeks. He raises Barred Rock and New Hampshire chickens, Bronze and Narragansett turkeys, and other poultry.

Mr Reese, in cooperation with the Livestock Conservancy and others, has developed a Heritage Breed definition that relies on the APA Standard. His label has been approved by the USDA and goes on each bird packaged and sold.

Thus far, he is the only producer whose label has USDA approval.

“The APA will offer a stamp like the USDA to help consumers make their choices,” Mr Anderson said.

Certification assures the purchaser that the product they are buying meets certain standards. The USDA’s Certified Organic label is the best known. Certifications increase product value. The Certified Organic label has been so successful in increasing the return to producers that major retailers claim it, not always honestly.

Fraud and lack of clarity as to standards have resulted in some erosion of its value, but it remains a significant contributor to farm income and consumer trust. Labels are so important to consumers and influential on the prices they are willing to pay that in some areas, such as fish, fraudulently mislabelling is common.

Emmer & Co. can’t keep up with the demand. Mr Reese is raising as many birds as he can for them and works with other producers to increase the supply.

“These are true, authentic Standard bred chickens,” Reese said. “If you will breed them to meet the standards, you will have a marketable animal.”



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