Higher welfare alternatives
Higher welfare indoor systems
Chickens reared in these systems are still kept indoors, but have more space, use breeds with slower genetic growth potential and provide natural light, perches, and pecking substrates for occupation.
Extensive indoor chickens (as defined in EU legislation EC 543/2008) are kept at a maximum density of 25kg/m2 and are slaughtered at a minimum age of 56 days. Beter Leven in The Netherlands is an example of an Assurance Scheme that requires these criteria as a minimum.
Systems accredited to RSPCA Assured standards have a maximum stocking density of 30 kg/m2 (for indoor production), and growth rate is limited to 60g per day (g/d) for indoor production and 52g per day (g/d) for free range but breed must be approved according to the outcomes of their welfare assessment protocol. They also provide natural light (minimum 100 lux) via double glazed windows, straw bales, perches and pecking substrates (such as string or whole brassicas). The chickens are more active and have better walking ability, foot and hock condition.
Some companies also supply chicken from high growth rate breeds, reared to 30 kg/m2 with natural light and an enriched environment. Although these systems provide a better environment for fast growing breeds, their genetics prevent them from achieving the full welfare potential of the system.
Free-range and organic systems
Chickens reared in these systems have access outdoors in daylight hours, as well as to sheds which are often similar (though smaller) to those used above. They are usually - but not always - closed inside the shed at night.
EU regulations limit stocking density to 27.5 and 21 kg/m2 in free-range and organic systems respectively and require at least 1m2 (free-range) and 4m2 (organic) of outdoor area per chicken.
Hedges and trees are often provided and form natural areas of shade and shelter (from wind, rain, and sun) and protection from predators. Worms, insects, and grass/herbs give variety to the diet and can help to improve the nutritional quality of the meat. The chickens have greater opportunity to exercise and investigate their surroundings via pecking and scratching, whilst experiencing fresh air and natural light. Ranging behaviour however is greatly affected by breed and weather conditions.
Some free-range (e.g. Red Tractor Farm Assurance Poultry Scheme) and organic (e.g. Soil Association) standards permit fast growing breeds of chickens, whilst others limit growth to intermediate (e.g. RSPCA Assured and Beter Leven) or slow growth rate breeds (e.g. Label Rouge and organic France). Chickens live longer in these systems - typically to 56 days (free-range) and between 70 and 81 days (organic). Again, in order to gain maximum benefit from these systems, breed change is essential – fast growth rate breeds should not be used in these systems.
Humane Catching, Transport and Slaughter
Irrespective of production system, it is essential that all animals are caught, transported and killed in the most humane way possible.
If done incorrectly, without care, the catching of broiler chickens prior to transport and slaughter has the potential to result in significant stress and injury (including haemorrhages, broken bones and dislocations). As a minimum, chickens should be caught and handled by both legs and no more than three birds carried per hand; ideally they would be caught with two hands under the breast.
Transport is another risk factor for poor welfare and the longer the duration of transport, the higher the risk to the birds, particularly from heat stress. For this reason transport should always be kept as short as possible, and no longer than 4 hours.
Electrical waterbath stunning, followed by a neck cut, is the most commonly used method globally for the commercial slaughter of poultry. However, there are significant animal welfare concerns with electrical waterbath stunning such as the need for inversion and shackling of live birds, the risk of the birds receiving pre-stun electrical shocks on entry to the waterbath, and the risk of inadequate stunning due to the inconsistency of the electrical parameters applied to each bird. In 2012, the European Food Safety Authority recommended against its use.
Controlled atmosphere (gas) systems (CAS) are increasing in use and account for the majority of poultry slaughter in the UK. The significant advantages include consistency in application of the method across all birds in the system and, since these are stun-kill systems, there is no risk of the birds recovering consciousness during bleeding. Another significant advantage is that the birds can remain in the transport modules throughout the process, avoiding the need for additional live handling.
CAS methods are not considered suitable for religious slaughter, because they are stun-kill methods. Head-only electrical stunning is a humane method of slaughter that may comply with the requirements of religious slaughter. Currently there is no commercially available method of head-only stunning which does not involve live shackling and inversion of the birds – further research and development is therefore urgently needed in this area.