October 2014
Farm & Field

Guiltless Chicken

  Dr. Wallace Berry, professor of poultry science at Auburn University

The Myth About Hormones in Poultry Production

The use of hormones in the poultry industry is a myth that has persisted for years, and recent marketing techniques have not helped to dispel this myth. One of the reasons it is so difficult to dispel is the public misconception that anything large has to be artificially induced. Another reason consumers may believe hormones are used in the poultry industry could be that hormones are allowed in livestock production, but the hormones used on cattle do not directly make the livestock bigger, they just make them more efficient, using less feed and time to produce better-quality meat; however, with chickens this is not feasible because they already grow as quickly as physically possible with no added hormones. The main reasons hormones are not used in poultry production are that they are ineffective, uneconomical and illegal.

Hormones in poultry are ineffective; research has proven there is not a single one that would make the chicken any larger.

Dr. Wallace Berry, professor of poultry science at Auburn University, said, "In poultry, hormones have no effects. All commercial chickens are so young that hormonal effects of being male or female haven’t kicked in.

"It’s all in the genetics, nutrition and environment of the birds. There is no hormone known to man that will do anything of benefit for chickens: no steroids, growth hormones or anything of the sort."

This reason is one that surprises a lot of consumers. Since chickens are processed before their own hormones have a chance to kick in and start running the body, adding hormones causes no effect. This is because poultry are already bred to grow maximally; they grow as fast as their bodies can handle, so there is no point in adding hormones.

Berry explained public perception of growth of poultry by saying, "People don’t have any problem knowing how you can get a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. You breed dogs to be small or big, same thing with horses, but they don’t think about poultry like that. The same genetic principles apply to poultry, which allow you to breed small or large chickens. Commercial poultry are bred to grow very rapidly and efficiently in a short period of time. If you kept those chickens for longer, their growth slows down. They do not keep growing like that; they are bred to have most of their growth at an early age. Their total growth in the long run is not much more than regular barnyard chickens, if they were kept until a year old."

Consumers hear that chickens are mature and grow large in a very short timeframe, and they assume the chickens must have been given hormones. In the world we live in today, it is believed that anything that is bigger than what people perceive as normal has to have been enhanced in a way that is not natural.

Hypothetically, if a farmer wanted to give chickens hormones, feeding them would not be an effective option. Berry puts it on a more practical level by explaining.

"Growth is complex; no one hormone can affect it. The hormone everyone considers a growth hormone is a protein hormone in all vertebrates. It cannot be taken orally, because it is digested normally; to be effective, it would have to be injected. The injections would have to be given every 90 minutes to be in correlation with the pulses of the natural hormones in the chicken. We have 110-120 million birds growing in Alabama at any given moment, so 120 million birds would have to be given an injection every 90 minutes - obviously that is not economical at all."

I know I would not want the job of injecting millions of chickens every 90 minutes, especially if it would not even help them grow that much. The poultry industry has started injecting eggs with vaccines, but it is done only once, to each batch of eggs, by a machine. For hormone injections to even begin to be slightly effective, they would need to be given 16 times a day every day to millions of chickens - and that is only in Alabama.

Poultry hormones are illegal. That is a straightforward reason why they are not used, but this is not a known fact among consumers because of the way products are being marketed. It is commonly said among poultry scientists that companies are their own worst enemy because of current marketing techniques.

"The food industry is all about consumer demand, giving the consumer what they want. It’s seen in the packaging: all natural, hormone-free, GMO-free and organic. This is done to meet consumer demand, but it is hurting ourselves [the poultry industry]," Berry explained.

These marketing techniques are hurting certain companies within the poultry industry because consumers see the words "hormone-free" on one package of chicken and not on another, then assume that, if it does not state so, all chicken has hormones. But that is not the case at all. There are two issues with these marketing ploys: no animal is hormone free, all animals have naturally occurring hormones, and no poultry sold in the United States has added hormones, so there should not be a reason to label that on packaging. But companies saw an opportunity to place their product above others and took it; this is one of the major reasons the myth of hormones in poultry is so hard to dispel, because of the package stating "hormone-free" or "no added hormones."

I hope, knowing the truth about the absence of hormones used in poultry production, you will have a better understanding and it will make you more at ease when you see the misleading "hormone-free" labeling. Hopefully it may even help you better explain the truth to other consumers who might be confused by this myth.

Michelle Bufkin is is a freelance writer from Auburn.