While the above flight of fancy may strike some as novel, it is, in fact, a continually evolving urban legend whose origins date back at least 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, a different 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 five years 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 mass-producing genetically altered, intravenously fed chickens without feathers, beaks, or feet is science fiction (or maybe not — see my 2005 update). 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 thereafter 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?