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On April 17, our RAFT partner, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, publicly unveiled a Heritage Chicken Definition.

Generally, we think of heritage as meaning foods that are naturally produced in traditional ways, often tied to a particular geographic region. But ALBC is taking it a step further—like they did for heritage turkeys—by defining the term in order to create a standard understanding among breeders, producers and consumers of what heritage means for a particular species.

So, what’s a heritage chicken? In short, it’s a standard breed of chicken (as defined by the American Poultry Association)—like the Buckeye, the Java or the Jersey Giant — that can reproduce naturally, grow slowly, and thrive outdoors. These birds were once raised by small-scale family farmers around the country and bred for hardiness, survivability and flavor. They are now in danger of extinction because of mass-market industrialization.

At the beginning of the twentieth century almost 90% of farms had chickens. By 1992, only 6% of farms had any poultry at all. Today, 90% of the chickens we consume are industrial hybrid varieties (mainly a single variety) that are bred to grow fast on minimal food in a confined environment. These are birds with no disease resistance, having been bred to such extremes that they could never survive outdoors on a farm.

People are starting to wake up to the horrors of industrial meat and poultry production and beginning to demand that the meat they buy is not only better for their own health, but better for the animals’ health and the health of our environment.

But how do we, as consumers, know what we’re buying? If I want to eat humanely raised chickens and don’t keep chickens myself or buy them directly from a farm or farmers’ market, I have to rely on the packaging. For now, no one is policing the term “heritage chicken” but ALBC is working with the Standard Bred Poultry Institute and Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch to educate and advocate for the honest use of the term.

This is a great first step but until there are “heritage” labeling standards, it will be challenging for us as consumers to be assured of the authenticity of a label. As the market for sustainably raised meat and poultry grows, the food industry has been very quick to co-opt terms like “cage-free” and “natural”. Even USDA certified terms like “organic” and grass-fed” don’t necessarily mean what you think. American Grassfed Association has their own grass-fed certification and label, in collaboration with the Animal Welfare Institute, because some cattle raised in confinement and fed antibiotics are allowed to be labeled USDA grassfed.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The first step (and ALBC’s forte) is recovering the numbers and productivity of these endangered breeds—selecting desirable production characteristics within each breed, and growing a solid group of committed breeders and products to increase breed populations. They have developed a suite of online heritage chicken resources for folks interested in raising these breeds, and they lead breed workshops around the country to train the next generation of breeders and producers.

When it comes time to promote these birds in the marketplace, our goal will be to not only educate chefs and consumers about “heritage” chickens but get consumers acquainted with the unique characteristics of each individual breed. As Marjorie Bender of ALBC says, we want the meat case in the grocery store to look like the cheese case. It shouldn’t just say pork chop or chicken breast, but Red Wattle pork chop and Buckeye chicken breast.

To read some recent press about ALBC’s work to save heritage chicken breeds, click here and here.