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Agriculture

Are Leg-less Chickens the Future?

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Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 2:00 PM
click to enlarge Some day, these may be like dinosaurs - TIGGYWINKLE/FLICKR
  • Tiggywinkle/Flickr
  • Some day, these may be like dinosaurs

Due to their prominence in café sandwiches and the pages of health, food, and lifestyle magazines, we've long figured Americans ate more chicken breasts than legs, thighs, and those ragged, slithery bit parts one has to vigorously disengage from a carcass. We just didn't know how much more. According to Nadia Arumugam's late January Slate article, "The Dark Side of the Bird," Americans eat white meat over 80% of the time they consume chicken, and until pretty recently, at least since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, much of the unused thighs and legs ended up in Russia--in 2009, nearly 1.6 billion pounds-worth. Those drumstick-crazed days--no doubt filled with barbecue sauce and wonder--are gone.

Arumugum describes how iron-fisted ruler and karaoke enthusiast Vladimir Putin put a stop to all this feathery business last January, not, as he claimed, because U.S.-raised chicken came treated with "unsafe" antimicrobial chlorine, but because he wanted Russia to become less dependent on imports--in other words, to put eggs in her own baskets.

The story goes on to break down the roots of the relationship with Russia and tackle ways the chicken industry might alleviate the poultry pile-up. Arumugam guesses that a permanent solution to the surplus of dark meat won't come in the form of re-branding to suit the tastes of American consumers or the soliciting of new foreign customers. Instead, she foresees some oh-so-appetizing scientific meddling:

"Since the 1970s, poultry producers have been altering the ratio of breast meat to dark meat through strategic selective breeding--with great success. Thirty years ago the yield of breast meat from an average chicken was 36 percent of the bird's total retail weight; today it's more than 40 percent. The cellophane-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast halves ubiquitous in grocery stores used to weigh 4 ounces in 1980; today they weigh nearly 5.5 ounces. Birds with all breast and no legs--pure science fiction or a future reality?"

As much as we're afraid of the moment this pale, fat-breasted sphere of chicken rolls ominously into Safeway, we can't help but wonder if producers might elect to use strategic selective breeding to create multiple "extreme" chicken variations à la the potion-dosed birds in Roald Dahl's George's Marvelous Medicine. What if wing people could feast on a chicken with not one but six wings, each larger, meatier, and juicier than those attached to pre-"extreme" chickens? Likewise, what if thigh fans could opt for a waddling, pear-shaped creature, shriveled and chest-less, but endowed with a rear end more formidable than Charles Barkley's? Just a thought.

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