For decades, the welfare of most chickens raised and slaughtered for meat has been deeply concerning: These “broiler chickens” have been selectively bred for rapid weight gain and muscle mass to such an extreme that they are inherently prone to painful, debilitating leg problems and have difficulty even walking. They have disproportionate heart and lung development and are afflicted with abnormal muscle growth, leading to syndromes called “wooden breast” and “white striping.” Abnormal deposits of collagen and fat develop instead of healthy muscle, reducing the range of motion of their wings, and if the birds fall over onto their backs, they can’t right themselves. Bred to be hungry and in constant search for food, commercial broiler chickens can do little more during their brief lives than sit in front of their feeder and eat. When they reach market weight at about 6 weeks old, they are sent to slaughter, still peeping like baby chicks.
The scale of this suffering is hard to comprehend. In the U.S. alone, nine billion of these birds are raised for slaughter every year. Globally, that number is over 72 billion. The number of animals experiencing this life can seem overwhelming. But now, at last, there is reason to be hopeful about the prospect of industry reform that would alleviate their suffering.
A research group at the University of Guelph in Canada is beginning to publish a series of papers in scientific journals, with participating scientists setting out their evaluation of alternative chicken breeds. They studied 16 different genetic strains of chickens over two years, identifying several that grow a little slower and are healthier and more active. These birds don’t just sit and eat, but in the study, they stood and walked more, could climb over a short barrier and traversed ramps onto platforms used in the trial to test the birds’ mobility. Earlier this month, Global Animal Partnership (G.A.P.), the organization that backed the research, announced that it would begin permitting only chicken strains that performed well in the Guelph University study into its farm auditing program. G.A.P. promulgates standards for farm animal welfare certification, and producers meeting its requirements can use G.A.P.’s “Animal Welfare Certified” label on their products. Some companies, including Whole Foods, feature G.A.P. certification in their stores. G.A.P. is now not only requiring the use of breeds that tested well in the Guelph University trial but will also require that those breeds be retested in four years to remain eligible.
This decision on allowable genetic strains will have expansive consequences, as this long-awaited list of new chicken breeds will be used by over 200 companies in the U.S. alone, including brands such as Chipotle, Kraft-Heinz and Popeyes. These companies and many more, including some with global operations—such as Unilever and Nestlé—have pledged to sell only chickens from improved genetic strains by 2024 or 2026, depending on the company, greatly reducing the suffering of chickens.
We have worked with many of these brands to enact purchasing policies addressing farm animal welfare. As these major companies make good on their promises, it could transform the entire industry on a scale that has never been reached before. Thanks to the good work of the researchers at the University of Guelph, G.A.P and all the companies pledging to do better, this could potentially be the most significant welfare advancement for the treatment of chickens in the meat industry ever achieved.
As heartening as this progress is for chickens who are raised and killed for meat, the best thing to do for farm animals is to eat fewer of them. This not only reduces animal suffering, but also has far-reaching positive consequences for combatting climate change. Millions of people are switching to eat more and more plant-based meals and for those looking to do the same, we have great resources available, including delicious, chicken-free recipes along with many helpful facts to back up such choices.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.