According to the amusing Wikipedia entry on a favorite culinary cliché, the following foods are said to “taste like chicken”—alligator, fried spider, frog legs, green iguana, huhu beetle, mopane worms, opossum, rabbit, rattlesnake, turkey, and squirrel. And for longtime fans of the reality show Survivor, few have likely forgotten the episode where the contestant trap and roast a rat, the first bite of which elicited a more-than-predictable response.“Tastes like chicken!”
It is thus more than a little ironic that most commercial chicken sold in the United States today does not, in fact, taste like chicken. Indeed, it does not really taste like anything at all. One could say that such chicken tastes bland—that is, if one ignored the fact that the definition of bland is tasteless. Or we could just agree that chicken tastes tasteless.
There are a lot of reasons why chicken today has no taste, but the main one is because someone seems to have decided that chicken must be cheap. And for chicken to be cheap, each chicken must be cheap to raise, which is to say quick and easily-managed. Thus, for starters, you need to get rid of genetic diversity, which is what occurred in the 1950’s with the wide-scale commercial production of chickens. In a recently-published study by William Muir of Purdue University, it was found that more than 50% of the diversity of ancestral breeds has been lost. Add to this the fact of commercial chickens being fed a diet of “super-grow” chicken feed, which is typically 70% corn, 20% soy, and 10% other ingredients such as vitamins and minerals, and you have the perfect recipes for chickens that grow quickly but taste like nothing.
It need not be this way, however. And in France, it is not. There, chickens that have earned the designation “Label Rouge” are guaranteed to taste not just better than commercially-raised chickens, but to actually taste like chicken. The label started in the early sixties when French chicken farmers banded together in cooperatives to protect the traditional methods of raising chickens on small farms. To be entitled to the coveted red-sticker that is the Label Rouge, farmers must comply with a long list of strict requirements, including the raising of only slow-growing breeds suited for living outdoors, which is what the chickens do, roaming in the open air for their relatively long lives.
Label Rouge chickens live for a minimum of 81 days, twice as long as their industrial-raised counterparts. The use of slow-growing birds is to ensure good flavor and meat quality. Label Rouge birds grow to five pounds in twelve weeks, while fast-growing broilers reach five pounds in half the time. Most importantly though, Label Rouge chickens are subject to regular taste-testing as a condition of certification, and the taste must be “vividly distinguishable” from conventional poultry. It is for this reason, among others, that two out of every three whole birds sold in France carry the Label Rouge, even though the birds cost twice as much. And as if all that was not enough, the incidence of Salmonella in Label Rouge chickens is less than 3%, meaning that only Norway (with its zero-tolerance policy) produces a more pathogen-free bird.
So maybe next time you eat a bite of commercially-raised chicken in the United States, you should instead say “tastes like roasted rat.” That is, after you made sure that the chicken was cooked to a pathogen-killing 165 degrees so that the meat is not only tasteless, but really dry.