The Curse of Frankenchicken

Rumor: KFC does not serve real chicken, uses "genetically manipulated organisms"

KFC Chicken
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The online rumor du jour, a viral text bluntly titled "Boycott KFC" (see below), urges us to think twice before buying a meal at KFC restaurants lest we find ourselves consuming a product shockingly different from what we've been led to expect.

The product may look like fried chicken and taste like fried chicken — and it is, at least, fried, thank God — but it's not real chicken, the rumor asserts.

It is, we're told, a "genetically manipulated organism" so far removed from the real animal that KFC is legally forbidden to call it chicken. Which is the reason, supposedly, that Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc. foreshortened its brand name to "KFC."

Executives aghast

Executives at KFC headquarters are aghast that anyone would take this nonsense seriously. When I asked KFC director of public affairs Michael Tierney if there's any truth at all to the allegations, he snapped back: "Of course not. Any thinking adult would know it's absolutely absurd."

Well, all right. But for the sake of perspective we are talking about the Internet, where, for example, tens of thousands of credulous users besieged Honda's corporate website a few years back demanding the free automobile promised to them in a forwarded email they'd received. There's a lesson in this for Mr. Tierney, I believe.

"Is it true that you serve fake chicken?"

Colette Janson-Sand, Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of New Hampshire (where research proving the artificiality of KFC's products was allegedly conducted), says her department has fielded a flock of phone calls from people asking if it's true that KFC restaurants serve "chicken that's not chicken," some of which she described as "hysterical." The University wasted no time publishing a rebuttal on its website.

Back at KFC, Tierney was quick to point out (and it is easily verified) that although the company dumped its "Kentucky Fried Chicken" brand over a decade ago to emphasize product variety, it still uses the "forbidden" word ubiquitously in its advertising and in-store signage. Remember the recent TV commercial jingle, "We Do Chicken Right!"?

That was KFC. The company's website makes reference to chicken on virtually every page.

"Genetically manipulated organisms"

In spite of the fact that one of its two main allegations is so effortlessly disproven, the "mutant chicken" rumor as exemplified in the viral email below continues to enjoy a phenomenal circulation (see following page for a six-legged variant):

Subject: Boycott KFC
Dec. 27, 1999

KFC has been a part of our American traditions for many years. Many people, day in and day out, eat at KFC religiously. Do they really know what they are eating?

During a recent study of KFC done at the University of New Hampshire, they found some very upsetting facts. First of all, has anybody noticed that just recently the company has changed their name? Kentucky Fried Chicken has become KFC. Does anybody know why? We thought the real reason was because of the "FRIED" food issue. It's not. The reason why they call it KFC is because they can not use the word chicken anymore. Why? KFC does not use real chickens. They actually use genetically manipulated organisms.

These so called "chickens" are kept alive by tubes inserted into their bodies to pump blood and nutrients throughout their structure. They have no beaks, no feathers, and no feet. Their bone structure is dramatically shrunk to get more meat out of them. This is great for KFC because they do not have to pay so much for their production costs. There is no more plucking of the feathers or the removal of the beaks and feet.

The government has told them to change all of their menus so they do not say chicken anywhere. If you look closely you will notice this. Listen to their commercials, I guarantee you will not see or hear the word chicken. I find this matter to be very disturbing. I hope people will start to realize this and let other people know.

Please forward this message to as many people as you can. Together we make KFC start using real chicken again.

While this flight of fancy may strike some as novel, it is, in fact, a continually evolving urban legend whose origins date back more than a decade. One variant circulating throughout 1999 (and likely earlier) made the similarly startling claim that the birds processed by KFC are "so pumped up full of steroids, growth enhancements and other chemicals that the end result is no longer truly the meat of a 'chicken'" (quote from Usenet posting dated March 29, 1999).

Going back a little further in time, another version of the tale alleged that KFC genetically engineers mutant chickens with four or six legs (drumsticks) apiece, thus increasing their profitability. Reader Edwin Gore contributed this example:

I heard the KFC story verbally in England back in 1995 while traveling there on business. It was slightly different, though. Instead of being legless, the chickens in this story were being bred with six legs each, thereby providing additional drumsticks per chicken! Other than that it was the same story, with the KFC name-change taking place because the British government would not let them use the word chicken.

Another reader reports:

My adult son is convinced that KFC has genetically engineered four-legged chickens, which is why they changed their name from "Kentucky Fried Chicken." The mutated chickens would not be legally classifiable as chicken.

Alt.folklore.urban newsgroup member Leo Simonetta collected a plethora of variants of the same story and tracked its online lifespan back to the same approximate date of origin as the word-of-mouth examples above: 1995. The beakless, feetless, featherless "Kentucky Fried Creature" we are hearing about today didn't make its Internet debut until April 1999.

The email version surfaced six months after that.

Fast food qualms

Rumors and hoaxes defaming fast food restaurant chains are as old as fast food itself, as evidenced by the infamous "McPus Sandwich" urban legend, which has spoiled folks' appetites for decades. The premise of a company secretly purveying genetically altered food is closest in type to the old saw about fast food chains substituting worm meat for beef in their recipes because it's (allegedly) cheaper. The undying popularity of such tales is attributable to the public's deep-seated qualms about the quality and cleanliness of fast food restaurants and, of course, an equally deep-seated distrust of big corporations in general.

It's probably no coincidence that the theme of genetically engineered food spilled out of the Internet rumor mill once again so close on the heels of the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. So-called "Frankenfoods" were a hot topic of discussion there, and public interest in the issue is burgeoning.

Ironically, actual research into the genetic modification of poultry could turn out to be quite beneficial to consumers. Experimenters are currently seeking ways to breed animals more resistant to parasites and diseases, for example.

Not all scientists are mad, nor every experiment tinkering the "building blocks of life" destined to produce monsters.

Meanwhile, KFC stands falsely accused of engineering mutant creatures for profit and finds itself in the queer position of having to reassure the public that its products are safe to consume. "After all, we buy our chickens from the very same sources that ordinary consumers do," notes spokesman Tierney. "We just buy a lot more of them."

Science fact or science fiction?

I'm no biologist, but I will venture to say that the very idea of a commercial entity mass-producing genetically altered, intravenously fed chickens without feathers, beaks, or feet is science fiction (on the other hand, maybe not; see update below). We are asked to believe that a company like KFC could save money by doing so.

But according to KFC's own statistics, it sells the equivalent of 581 million birds a year in the form of fried chicken; by what stretch of the imagination could it be cheaper to grow that many "organisms" in some vast, high-tech laboratory?

You might stand a chance of convincing me if you said these organisms, once created, could reproduce and be grown on farms like regular poultry. That could be cost-effective, I will admit, not to mention provide the solution to an updated version of the ancient philosophical quandary: Which came first, the genetically manipulated organism or the egg?

2005 update: fake is the future of meat

Fake meat alarmists may have something for real to cluck about in the not-too-distant future as researchers in the field of tissue engineering perfect new in vitro technologies "that could grow chicken nuggets without the chicken, on a large scale," according to a just-released scientific paper.

"Cultured meat" would be healthier than ordinary meat, the scientists say, and cut down on environmental pollution associated with raising livestock. The technique involves replicating individual muscle cells on a massive scale and growing them on flat sheets or in strands which can be harvested and processed into products resembling actual beef or chicken.

"With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply," doctoral student Jason Metheny was quoted as saying in a University of Maryland press release. "In the long term, this is a very feasible idea."

Okay, maybe so. But can we call it chicken?

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