How many times have you heard people talk about hormones in chicken meat? …that hormones are ‘fed’ to chickens? … that the hormones in chicken meat are causing an epidemic of early maturity/puberty in our young kids today?
Well, guess what? All the above are simply UNTRUE! In fact, hormones haven’t been fed or in any other way administered to chickens here in Australia for over 50 years!
Despite this reality, around 80% of Australians continue to believe the industry feeds hormones to its chickens. How can this urban myth be so firmly ingrained in our beliefs?
Well, here’s my take on this.
Origin of the Hormone Myth
The origin of the ‘hormones in chicken’ myth goes back a long way…indeed to a time when we didn’t have the current modern breeds of meat chickens that have been specifically bred for meat and when poultry producers therefore relied on growing out the cockerels (the otherwise unusable young male chickens from strains of chickens used for egg production or dual egg/meat production) for human consumption. In the 1950s, a particular synthetic form of the female sex hormone oestrogen started to be used commercially in some parts of the world to increase the growth rate of cattle and to fatten chickens. Unlike the case in cattle, chickens don’t respond to oestrogens by increased weight gain but rather by changes in fat deposition – so back then if it was used in poultry it was to essentially ‘fatten’ cockerels (young male chickens).
However, the use of these products was phased out in the 1960s here in Australia. Why? At the same time that better genetic strains of chickens (plumper, bigger and higher meat-yielding) started to emerge from international genetic breeding programs, eliminating the need to use inefficient egg-type cockerels for meat production, human health concerns started to emerge relating to the use of this particular hormone in food production. Indeed, the use of was phased out globally in the 1970s.
However, as a result of media reports in 1985, suggesting that increased reporting by physicians of early sexual development in girls in Puerto Rico may be linked to the feeding of hormones to cattle and chickens, and despite the fact that subsequent investigation of the Puerto Rican incident discounted this theory, the hormone myth was born.
I guess it was the nature of the story, a somewhat titillating tale, that attracted people’s attention and caused the implied association to stick in people’s minds, but there it has stayed ever since.
The Reality Today
To summarise: they aren’t allowed; they’re not available; they don’t work; they’re not needed; THEY’RE NOT USED.
And to extrapolate:
- Hormones are not approved for use in poultry meat production in Australia, which means that its illegal to use them.
- Hormones do not lead to increased growth rates in chickens.
- Even if they were effective, most would have to be injected (or be administered individually to each chicken by subcutaneous implants) rather than ‘fed’, because the major class of hormones that are used in other species are broken down in the digestive tract of animals, making administration difficult and costly to the point of impracticality for chickens. Many readers may be aware that cattle in Australia may receive hormone supplements – that is because they do have effects on growth in cattle, and it is commercially viable to administer such products, either through direct injection or from an implant placed under the skin, because of the large size and individual value of the animal and the growth benefits that can be achieved.
- As a result of the above points, hormones for meat chickens are not even available commercially.
- Over the last four to five decades, improved genetics, better nutrition, and improvements in veterinary care, housing and husbandry practices have resulted in huge improvements in the growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, meat yield and overall productivity of commercial meat chickens. The industry hasn’t and doesn’t need hormones to achieve these improvements.
More information on the hormone myth and why chickens today grow so well and to such a large size can be found on the ACMF’s Frequently Asked Questions page: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=150#G3
You might also be interested to learn more about the genetic selection processes that have allowed the huge improvements in chicken growth and productivity in the absence of hormone use. If so, I suggest you have a look at this page: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=247
For a light hearted summary – enjoy the video here (created in 2009): http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=237
Hope to see you next month when I’ll be taking a closer look at the different chicken farming systems used by the industry. In the meantime, let me know of any chicken-related issues that are on your mind that I may be able to address.