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Who is the broiler chicken?

Broiler (or meat) chickens originated from a cross between red and grey jungle fowl and Rock Line birds. Just like laying hens, broilers would naturally spend their day foraging for food, scratching the ground looking for insects and seeds, maintaining their plumage condition via dustbathing and preening, and perching in trees to avoid predators.

Due to the rise in consumer demand for cheap poultry meat - which is often regarded as a more sustainable, healthier meat option - the broiler industry has grown dramatically in the past 50 years. Today, in the UK we eat on average 25kg in a year - that's more than 2 kg per month.

Broiler chickens have an average lifespan of 7 to 8 years, whereas in commercial production they are slaughtered as early as 35 days old , so they do not get to reach adulthood during their lifetime.

Commercial production

Globally, over 70% of meat chickens (broilers) are raised in industrial farming systems, the large majority in North America, Europe, South America and a rapidly increasing proportion in developing countries, such as China, Brazil and Indonesia.

Standard intensively farmed broilers are reared under high stocking densities in large sheds that are barren except for water and food points, with no natural light. They have increasingly been bred for very fast growth, high meat yield and feed efficiency. Their fast growth rates affect their ability to walk and can cause lameness and serious heart conditions.

Antibiotics are routinely overused in intensive farm systems to help chickens survive in poor conditions where disease can spread easily. Leading authorities such as the European Medicines Agency and the WHO say that the overuse of antibiotics in farming contributes to higher levels of antibiotic resistance in some human infections.

The quality and nutritional content of intensively farmed chicken meat is also generally poorer than higher welfare chicken and can be affected by ‘white striping’, where fatty deposits are stored in the breast muscle as the bird grows, or ‘wooden breast’, a hardening of the muscle tissue that occurs when tissue cells die due to a lack of oxygen in the fast-growing muscle. Both are known to cause pain and restrict movement in fast growing breeds as well as being unpalatable to consumers.

Discover more about how to provide broiler chickens with a better quality of life below.

 

What do meat chickens want and need?


Easy access to good
food and water

Possibilities to forage,
peck and scratch

To enjoy a good dust bath

A variety of comfortable
places to perch

Opportunities to explore
their rich environment

Space to run and
flap their wings

A safe, quiet, and dark
place to rest undisturbed

To interact with other
chickens

Providing meat chickens with a better quality of life


No cages or multi-tier systems

Slower-growing breeds

Plenty of space indoors and outdoor access

A variety of pecking substrates

Good perching space

Good dust-bathing
opportunities

A good light regime, including natural light

Shade and outdoor shelter

European Chicken Commitment

In September 2017, Compassion joined forces with a group of European NGO’s calling on companies to sign up to the European Chicken Commitment (ECC) - also known as the Better Chicken Commitment - to make significant improvements in the rearing and slaughter of broiler chickens, by 2026.

We are asking companies to give chickens a better quality of life, including the following:

  • SLOWER GROWING BREEDS: using breeds that demonstrate higher welfare outcomes
  • MORE SPACE TO LIVE: ensuring a stocking density of 30kg/m2 or less, to give the birds more space to move around, express natural behaviours and rest undisturbed
  • ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT: providing at least two metres of usable perch space and two pecking substrates per 1,000 birds to stimulate bird behaviour
  • NATURAL LIGHT: providing at least 50 lux of light, including natural light
  • HUMANE SLAUGHTER: adopting controlled atmospheric stunning (CAS) using inert gas or multi-phase systems, or effective electrical stunning without live inversion.
  • THIRD PARTY AUDITING: meaningful third-party animal welfare audits and annual reporting against the above criteria

To date, over 270 companies have joined the European Chicken Commitment - find out who is stepping up for chicken welfare here.

Read our Better Chicken Commitment overview and the full criteria for the ECC.

In the US, over 200 companies have agreed a similar ask to provide better welfare for broilers by 2024.

Broiler Forums

Many ECC signatories have been involved in Compassion’s industry forums and working groups which has given them the confidence to make the commitment and to start working on their implementation plans for higher welfare chicken. If you want to be involved get in touch.

Labelling

Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare logo

In order to facilitate this change in the market, Red Tractor in the UK has introduced an Enhanced Welfare module that meets the requirements of the European Chicken Commitment, enabling companies to source to this standard via a third party assurance scheme.

 

Etiquettebeavisuels

The AEBEA animal welfare labelling scheme in France also provides companies with a front of pack label to differentiate their higher welfare chicken for consumers.

 

 

KEY CONSIDERATIONS

Read more about how to implement better systems for broiler chicken production below.

Good housing

Good housing

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Chickens need to be provided with sufficient space, natural light and enrichment to encourage natural behaviours such as perching, scratching and pecking, wing flapping and dustbathing.

In line with the European Chicken Commitment, we ask for the following as a minimum:

  • More space: Maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2 or less. Thinning is discouraged and if practiced must be limited to one thin per flock.
  • Improved environment:
    • At least 50 lux of light, including natural light.
    • At least two metres of usable perch space, and two pecking substrates, per 1,000 birds.
    • On air quality, the maximum requirements of Annex 2.3 of the EU broiler directive, regardless of stocking density.
    • No cages or multi-tier systems.

The Windstreek system in the Netherlands is a good example of a higher welfare commercial system offering multiple features for improved broiler welfare and strong sustainability elements. Read the windstreek broiler house case study and watch the best innovation awards video to find out more.

Good breeding

Good breeding

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Choosing slower growing breeds means the chickens have more natural proportions and can walk more easily, they are better resistant to disease and produce better quality meat.

In line with the European Chicken Commitment, we ask companies to adopt breeds that demonstrate higher welfare outcomes: either the following breeds, Hubbard Redbro (indoor use only); Hubbard Norfolk Black, JA757, JACY57, 787, 957, or 987, Rambler Ranger, Ranger Classic, and Ranger Gold, or other breeds that meet the criteria of the RSPCA Broiler Breed Welfare Assessment Protocol.

Read the results of the RSPCA study which showed how fast growth rate breeds were up to three times more likely to suffer from lameness and demonstrated a distinct lack of activity and behavioural expression when compared to the slower-growing breed.

Supporting better chicken

Supporting better chicken

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To help drive the market forwards for improved broiler welfare, companies should:

  • Publicly sign up to the European Chicken Commitment to significantly improve chicken welfare in their supply chain
  • Develop a strong roadmap to phase-in the higher welfare criteria and report year-on-year progress against targets, measured via the Compassion’s annual ChickenTrack report
  • Work with their suppliers and pace their transition, capitalising on any B2B linkages where costs for higher welfare chicken can be shared.
  • Support producers by offering longer supplier contracts, for stability and to encourage investment in higher welfare production
  • Consider dedicated supply/flocks to have greater control/influence over the higher welfare standards adopted
  • Cost mitigation strategies such as whole carcass utilisation and waste reduction strategies
  • Empower consumers to easily choose higher welfare chicken by adopting labelling to help differentiate your products (e.g Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare/AEBEA labelling)

ChickenTrack, Resources & Awards

Compassion is keeping track of the progress companies are making towards introducing the higher welfare criteria of the 2026 European Chicken Commitment through its ChickenTrack report. The first report will be published in 2021, providing recommendations and advice, and sharing best practice from the companies who are demonstratively leading the way.

If you want to know more about broiler chicken welfare we have developed a range of resources to help you. And if you signed up to the European Chicken Commitment  you may also be eligible for one of our Good Chicken Awards.

Explore our resources or apply for a Good Chicken Award below.

Resources

Explore our range of practical guidelines, videos, and case studies to help you improve the welfare of broiler chickens in your supply chain.

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1. Resources

Apply for a Good Chicken Award

The Good Chicken Award recognises companies that introduce higher welfare standards for broiler chickens, including; slower growing breeds, a reduced stocking density and environmental enrichment.

If you have signed up to the European Chicken Commitment you may be eligible for an award.

Apply here
2. Apply for a Good Chicken Award

GET IN TOUCH

If you are converting to higher welfare chicken production and want more help or information, please contact the Food Business team.

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