Length Of Life Or Quality Of Life: Issues In Chicken Welfare
While broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) can now be raised to slaughter weight much faster than in previous decades, there are concerns that growing chickens at that speed has myriad negative consequences for their welfare and for the quality of the meat produced from them. For example, some studies have found that chickens that are raised to reach slaughter weight as quickly as possible may suffer from injury and pain in their legs (presumably as a result of not being able to support their own heavy weight.)
As a result, some chicken producers allow chickens to grow slower, which increases production costs but allows them to market their products using the term “slow growth.” This article, published by the Poultry Science Association Inc., surveyed 2,049 U.S. chicken consumers to determine how willing they would be to pay extra for chickens sold with slow growth labels on their packaging.
To make the survey as realistic as possible, consumers were shown realistic images of packaged chickens priced at different amounts, and labeled with various combinations of the following possible labels: organic, antibiotic-free, no hormones added, non-GMO, and slow-growth. Additionally, some product images contained brand names while others were brandless.
One group of respondents was not given any additional info prior to starting the survey – this was the control group. In contrast, a second group of respondents was given pro-slow growth information from NPR / the New York times, and the third group of respondents were given anti-slow growth information from the National Chicken Council. Finally, respondents were asked about their pre-existing beliefs and knowledge relevant to slow-growth chickens. The results were reported in terms of customer’s willingness to pay (WTP) for chickens labeled with certain attributes compared to chickens without those attributes.
The authors found that information provided on slow growth had a significant impact on consumers’ WTP for chickens with the slow growth label. For example, in the control group (no information given), 30% of consumers were willing to pay up to $.40/lb extra for slow-growth chickens and 70% of consumers were willing to pay between $.40 and $1.00/lb extra for slow-growth chickens. By contrast, among consumers exposed to pro-slow growth information, 45% were willing to pay more than $1.00/lb extra for slow-growth chicken.
Among consumers exposed to anti-slow growth information, no respondents (0%) were willing to pay more than $.40/lb extra for slow-growth chicken. However, calculations made using data from Elanco Animal Health lead the authors to estimate that slow growth chickens cost $.71/lb extra to produce compared to chickens grown by today’s fast growth standards. The authors found that labels for the attributes tested for in this study were even less likely to influence consumers when the images that were shown included brands. Perhaps this is because brands factor significantly into chicken purchasing decisions in the U.S., making other labels less important.
Furthermore, non-GMO and organic labels performed better in terms of incentivizing customers to pay more compared to slow-growth labels. In fact, without being given any information about what slow-growth chicken is all about, many consumers rated slow growth chicken low in perceived safety, taste, and health. Questions about people’s pre-existing knowledge and beliefs revealed a stark lack of knowledge about slow growth broilers and broilers in general. Most respondents overestimated the number of broiler chickens raised in cages, perhaps because they were getting them confused with egg-laying hens (who are produced separately from broilers).
Only 12.1% of respondents claimed to be very knowledgeable about slow growth chickens, which likely explains why information provided to consumers on the topic has so much of an impact on molding their beliefs in this regard. The authors hypothesize that price is the main motivator for many consumers’ chicken buying preferences, but acknowledge that a certain subset of consumers seem to not factor price too greatly into their chicken purchase preferences.
Overall, the study suggests that if slow growth chickens really do confer a welfare advantage, more information needs to be given to the public to positively impact their buying choices. Advocates can help by becoming informed about the different attributes that affect broiler welfare, including rate of growth, and raising public awareness to encourage choosing products produced with better welfare standards over those with worse welfare standards. Advocates can also focus their efforts on changing public perceptions about chicken producer brands based on how well they care for the welfare of the chickens they sell.