Corporations Report On Chicken Welfare Improvements
Food industry reform is an important mechanism for improving chicken welfare. Because of this, many animal advocacy organizations focus on working with food companies to improve the treatment of the animals they source and produce, as well as the conditions in which these animals are kept.
With its annual ChickenTrack Report, the organization Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) assesses how well leading food businesses are progressing in their commitments to the North American Better Chicken Commitment (BCC). The BCC is a corporate pledge to improve the well-being of so-called “broiler” chickens used in food supply chains.
To fulfill the BCC, a company needs to meet certain criteria to address several key welfare concerns that most impact broiler chickens today:
- Stocking density: Broiler cages are prohibited, and the maximum stocking density is 6 pounds per square foot of space.
- Baseline environment: For example, companies must give chickens access to eight hours of continuous light, environmental enrichment, and appropriate litter.
- Stunning process: Chickens must go through a pre-shackle, multi-step controlled-atmosphere system.
- Breed choice: Companies must source chickens of a “higher-welfare” breed.
Chicken suppliers must meet the specific standards for stocking, environment, and stunning by 2024 and use BCC-approved breeds by 2026. The BCC also requires demonstration of compliance with each standard.
According to the 2021 ChickenTrack Report, only 12 of the 220 pledging companies publicly disclosed their progress by January 2022 despite the BCC requirement for annual public progress reporting. However, those that did report demonstrated significant compliance with BCC standards. The vast majority of these companies indicated that 90-100% of their broiler chickens already met BCC standards for stocking density and baseline environment, while nine of the 12 stated that their reporting had been third-party audited.
As the report notes, other U.S. certification schemes exist to ensure more humane chicken processing practices. It goes on to show how the criteria of five prevailing schemes compare to those of the BCC. CIWF claims that only one of them — the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification — demands similar levels of care to the BCC.
One feature unique to the BCC and AWA — and a focus of this report — is the use of broiler chicken breeds with verified higher welfare outcomes. The report cites independent research that shows, unsurprisingly, that the chicken breeds currently used by the food industry experience severe welfare harms. Instead, other chicken breeds may fare better because of their genetic makeup, for example, because they grow slower. Nevertheless, none of the companies in the report disclosed progress toward the use of such “higher-welfare” breeds in 2021.
When encouraging food producers to use slower-growing chicken breeds, it may help to emphasize that such breeds may provide benefits for the food producers, too. For example, the report claims that the approved list of higher-welfare breeds may be less reliant on traditional chicken feed, allowing producers to use more sustainable food sources (thus reducing their environmental footprint). Such breeds also have been shown to have better litter conditions, which means fewer chicken health problems and decreased costs and health risks for farmers.
Altogether, while it’s promising that some companies are making real progress on their commitment to the BCC, low reporting rates suggest that there is still a long road ahead. While some influential companies may encourage other food businesses to improve their progress, the BCC’s high standards, while admirable, may make the pledge more costly to implement than companies think it is worth — especially when other, less-demanding certification schemes exist. The next report, likely published March 2023, will further indicate whether the pledged companies are in fact committed to improving the lives of the chickens they use in their food chains.