‘Broiler’ Chicken Welfare: The 2019 ChickenTrack Report
Each year, over nine billion so-called broiler chickens are raised for meat in the United States. Genetic selection for accelerated growth along with inhumane living conditions and slaughter practices result in considerable welfare issues. However, the intensive chicken industry is facing a growing demand from consumers for higher welfare products and meaningful welfare standards. In response to these demands, over 130 food companies have signed on to the “Better Chicken Commitment,” where they pledge to make significant improvements to the lives of broiler chickens in their supply chain by 2024.
Compassion in World Farming USA is monitoring companies to ensure they follow through on their promises. Of course, commitments alone do not guarantee a successful market shift and producers, purchasers, and other stakeholders in the supply chain need to start making changes now to make progress towards their pledges. The goal of Compassion USA’s annual ChickenTrack report is to track this progress while creating transparency around the industry and catalyzing the conversations needed to ensure the improved welfare of broiler chickens.
The Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) can be summarized in five tenets: transitioning to breeds of birds that demonstrate better welfare outcomes, reducing stocking density and prohibiting cages, providing birds with better, more enriching environments, improving processing and slaughter systems, and finally, demonstrating compliance with these standards via third party auditing.
This first edition of the ChickenTrack report (2019) provides an overview of the current market and gives insight into the changes necessary to transition to a higher welfare standard for that market. The report also profiles two leading producers — Wayne Farms and Purdue Farms — who are both starting to transition their supply chains to systems with higher welfare standards, demonstrating to other producers the scalability of these improvements.
The Science Behind the BCC
Under current U.S. laws, the conditions in which broiler chickens live severely limit their physical and mental health, and do not allow for the expression of natural behaviors. ChickenTrack looked into current conditions, in aspects including stocking density, genetics, enrichment and slaughter, and changes that should be made to improve welfare.
Stocking density: Housed in large, windowless indoor barns, meat chickens are typically kept at high densities (up to 9lb/ft2), limiting their ability to move freely without walking over each other, and causing problems like dermatitis from inactivity and liver damage from the inability to dissipate metabolic heat. If ventilation systems fail in the summer, flock mortality can occur in high numbers as the birds simply lack the space necessary to keep themselves cool by raising their wings. When given more space, broilers preen, forage and perch more. They also express play behaviors like sparring and frolicking, indicating a welfare state beyond the mere absence of negative states like pain or fear.
Genetics: Since the 1950s, selective breeding has increased the size of the average broiler chicken by over 400%, producing birds with 80% more breast muscle, all while requiring 50% less feed. Modern broiler breeds have reached the limits of their growth potential without proportional improvements to their skeletal and cardiovascular systems, compromising health and limiting the physical ability to move and express natural behavior. This leads to problems like organ failure, lameness and painful lesions from prolonged contact with soiled litter. Breeds selected for higher welfare outcomes have shown better abilities to cope with environmental stressors like heat. They also exhibit significantly more behaviors associated with positive welfare like foraging, perching and play, as well as comfort behaviors like dust-bathing, preening and stretching.
Enrichment: Broiler barns are typically barren with low artificial lighting and only brief periods of continuous darkness. To allow for natural behaviors like the ones mentioned above, it is recommended that barns have loose and dry litter and environmental enrichment like perches, pecking objects and straw bales. A minimum of six hours of continuous darkness is recommended in order to allow for undisturbed, synchronized resting for the whole flock.
Slaughter: Standard industry practice uses electrical water bath stunning, and live chickens have to be handled, inverted and shackled, causing stress, pain and injury. According to the report, controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) offers a more effective method which renders the birds unconscious, and offers many welfare advantages.
Chicken consumption is at an all-time high in the U.S. and according to industry groups, the market is only expected to grow. Consumers are turning away from red meat and favoring chicken, mainly due to health and environmental concerns. However, the future of the chicken industry may be hard to predict due to the rise of plant-based alternatives along with a growing concern not only for sustainability but for animal welfare. In the last decade, the broiler market has seen a 13% increase in sales by pound, but only a 0.3% increase in the number of chickens. This indicates higher growth rates and/or a higher percentage of really large chickens — for whom all the health issues described above are intensified. However, a rising demand for so called “dark meat” may justify an increased investment in higher welfare breeds, because stronger legs and better physical balance means more dark meat.
It was mainly the demand for white meat which drove the industry to breed chickens that grow as quickly as possible. This rapid growth is strongly linked to chronic, painful myopathies as muscles outgrow their support systems. Myopathies often develop in the first week of life, then increase in occurrence and severity. In addition to reducing welfare significantly, they also downgrade the quality of the meat, making it spongy or tough and difficult to chew. It is estimated that up to a whopping 96% of all broiler chickens suffer from muscular disorders, and that the industry loses $200 million each year due to just one type of myopathy called woody breast. Converting to slower growing, higher welfare breeds could significantly reduce these abnormalities and subsequent economic loss.
In a 2018 Ketchum survey, U.S. adults ranked animal welfare as a top priority cause, alongside hunger and children’s education. Nearly a third of consumers chose “humanely raised” as most important to them in a Mintel survey and according to another survey from the National Chicken Council, “humane” beat both “taste” and “sustainable” as priorities when buying poultry. Mintel also reported that although total sales of poultry are declining, brands with ethical claims are still doing well.
Recent research in agricultural economics found that consumers were willing to pay a premium of $0.26/lb to $0.54/lb for chicken breasts, depending on whether the package contained information about slower growth attributes and whether that information was presented positively. When given no information at all, consumers were willing to pay an additional $0.46/lb, which translates to a 14.3% premium. The researchers estimated that an 8.5% premium is needed to offset costs for the producer to convert to slower-growing breeds (this estimate did not include the added cost of converting to CAS). Increasing demand for dark meat, combined with a growing aversion to the lower-quality meat associated with muscular disorders, may help shift the balance towards slow-growing, balanced chickens with stronger legs and smaller breast muscles.
This isn’t the first time the broiler industry has been forced to adapt quickly to meet consumer demand and regulatory pressure. Producers used to rely heavily on antibiotics, both to prevent diseases and promote growth, but increasing consumer concern along with evolving FDA guidance led the industry to reduce its antibiotics use by nearly 50% between 2016 and 2017. The improved welfare effect is twofold: chickens grow slower, and without antibiotics to prevent disease, producers have no choice but to decrease stocking density and increase litter quality to help prevent outbreaks.
Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and higher animal welfare, and one way for companies to compete is to provide products that align with evolving consumer values, as both top producers Wayne Farms and Purdue Farms are doing. In the face of evolving consumer preferences and ethical expectations, communication around animal welfare in the poultry industry must become more transparent, and this includes producers and purchasers reporting progress against welfare targets. The ChickenTracker provides animal advocates with valuable insights and some hope as the broiler industry responds to consumer demand for higher welfare, a growing preference for dark meat, and a willingness-to-pay that could cover the costs of an industry-wide conversion to slower-growing breeds and higher welfare production. In addition to putting pressure on animal agriculture industries to do better, consumers are increasingly showing a preference for plant-based alternatives. While animal advocates hope for and work towards a meatless future, efforts like the ChickenTracker promote transparency and commitment, and help us catalyze the conversations needed to support shifts to higher welfare.