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Mitigating economic and environmental impacts is critical to delivering better welfare for broiler chickens

News Icon 28/06/2024

White broiler chicken sitting on straw bedding amongst other chickens

By: Dr Tracey Jones, Global Director of Food Business, Compassion in World Farming

Over the last six years, there has been an unprecedented wave of corporate pledges to raise the bar for broiler chicken welfare, based on the criteria of the European Chicken Commitment (ECC), also known as the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC). Transitioning to ECC production is not straightforward – it requires investment and buy-in across the business, the supply chain and ultimately from the consumer. ECC production poses economic and environmental challenges, as birds require more feed to produce the same amount of meat, are given more space to live and take longer to reach final body weight. Mitigating such challenges is critical to delivering the higher welfare for broiler chickens that is so urgently needed and requires a ‘can do’ attitude and mindset shift to break the limitations of business-as-usual intensive farming.

A recent report commissioned by the Association of Poultry Processors and Poultry Trade in the EU Countries (AVEC) has attempted to model the economic and environmental costs of ECC production but falls short in accounting for the benefits associated with higher welfare production – including lower mortality, reduced antibiotic use and better meat quality, which could significantly offset some of these economic and environmental impacts.

The ECC is raising the bar for broiler welfare in Europe. It may impact cost and environmental measures, but when combined with successful strategies – such as feed reformulation, full carcase utilisation or innovative product development, it can be commercially and environmentally viable.

Raising broiler chicken welfare standards under the ECC

The welfare of chickens in conventional production systems has long been compromised. Broiler chickens are bred for rapid growth, feed efficiency and large breast meat yield, growing four times faster than they did 50 years ago. This unnaturally fast growth leads to poor immune function, heart defects, inflammatory diseases, and high rates of lameness and foot lesions. These birds live in barren, overcrowded sheds, with up to 19 birds/m2, lacking enrichment and natural light. They spend most of their time inactive, sitting on the litter and unable to exhibit natural behaviours like perching, pecking and foraging – leading to a flat and stressed disposition rather than happy and active birds. When it comes to slaughter, a large proportion of those birds are stunned using waterbath electrical stunning, which brings additional stress and suffering.

Compassion in World Farming joined forces with a group of NGOs across Europe in 2017 to form a coalition around a unified ask to food companies: the European Chicken Commitment. By signing up to the ECC, companies commit to adopt higher welfare standards for broiler chickens in their supply chain, including the use of slower growing breeds, providing more living space, natural light, perches and pecking substrates, and more humane slaughter methods.

The need for enhanced welfare standards in chicken production is backed up by both scientific research and public opinion. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a significant scientific opinion in 2023, calling for a substantial shift in production systems to better align with the welfare needs of chickens. Their recommendations cover all key ECC on-farm requirements (lower stocking density, slower growing breeds, enrichment and natural light) and will inform the revision of EU animal welfare legislation, including updates to the 'Broiler Directive' (Council Directive 2007/43/EC) on broiler chicken protection.

Consumers are also increasingly concerned about animal welfare, as evidenced in the latest Eurobarometer (the official European Commission poll) on animal welfare (October 2023), which shows that 84% of Europeans surveyed want the welfare of farmed animals to be better protected in their country.

The ECC provides a framework for producers and companies to deliver better welfare for broiler chickens, enabling them to respond to consumer demand for higher welfare and to anticipate potential legislative changes in the EU.

A transition already in progress and demonstrating commercial success

Over 380 companies have already signed up to the ECC, pledging to only offer their customers higher welfare products from healthier, happier chickens. These companies aren’t merely signing; many are actively working towards implementing the set of higher welfare criteria. For example, M&S in the UK now has 100% ECC-compliant fresh chicken on its shelves and is on track to convert its processed and ingredient chicken to meet the 2026 ECC deadline. Over 50 companies in our latest European ChickenTrack are reporting on their progress towards meeting the ECC requirements.

Several EU producers have stated their willingness to supply ECC-compliant chicken, and some have committed to transition part of their production or even their entire production to ECC standards. Norwegian producer Norsk Kylling, for example, has completed its ECC transition, without a corresponding increase in economic or environmental costs, proving that with careful planning and execution, such a shift is achievable on a large commercial scale.

Mitigating the increase in production costs and environmental impact

The journey to delivering higher welfare is not easy and there are, of course, many external challenges – not least the cost of living and climate crisis. It is undeniable that the transition from conventional to ECC production typically results in an increase in production costs, by providing more space per bird (and therefore fewer birds produced per shed) and using breeds that are slower growing (requiring more feed to produce the same amount of meat and reducing the number of production cycles per year). For the same reasons, switching to higher welfare may have a higher environmental impact. However, these negative impacts can and must be mitigated through an adjustment of practices.  

The recent study commissioned by AVEC and led by research company, ADAS, looked at the economic and environmental impacts incurred by the adoption of the ECC across the industry. While it is important to model those impacts, it is highly regrettable that the report failed to consider cost-reduction strategies or the broader positive impacts a transition to higher welfare ECC standards will have, including on animal and human health and welfare.

Cost mitigation strategies

By excluding the breeding and processing phases, the report overlooked areas where ECC systems can outperform conventional systems, such as a better productivity of the parent stock, lower rejection rates in slaughterhouses and fewer carcass downgrades due to meat quality issues, leading to a reduction in food waste. In addition, ECC flocks typically report much lower mortality rates (while the AVEC report uses a mortality rate 0.5% lower for ECC flocks based on “industry views”, scientific literature reports a greater difference of up to 9% lower).

The increase in production costs must be absorbed across the entire food chain, not just by producers or consumers, while transition periods are also crucial when modelling the economic impact of a move to ECC production. Two key aspects which were unfortunately left out of the AVEC report.

It is also regrettable that the report did not make any mention of the range of cost-reduction strategies that exist to offset some of the cost increase associated with ECC production - such as better carcass utilisation, menu reformulation and innovative product development.

Finally, while investing in higher welfare chicken production bears a cost, signatory companies will often benefit from improved brand reputation, stronger marketing and consumer loyalty due to their higher welfare standards.

Mitigating the environmental impact

The AVEC report also examined the increase in greenhouse gases emissions, water use, and land use associated with ECC standards, but again failed to acknowledge some of the environmental advantages of higher welfare systems such as reduced food waste due to lower mortalities and less meat-quality issues, as well as the higher productivity of broiler chicken breeders.

It is currently estimated that over 75% of the environmental impact of broiler production comes from activities associated with feed production, especially from the use of land to produce unsustainable soya beans. While slower growing breeds require more feed as they live longer and are less “efficient” in converting animal feed into meat, they also present the important advantage of requiring a lower protein diet (and therefore soya content can be lowered) - which the report somewhat acknowledges but would have needed a stronger emphasis.

The report also failed to consider possible mitigation practices to lower the impact of the ECC on some environmental metrics. For example, the use of alternative local protein sources in the feed, the adoption of renewable energy, efficient manure management or improving full carcass utilisation could significantly reduce the environmental footprint of ECC production. Those strategies are essential to achieve an animal welfare and environmentally friendly farming system that minimises the need to trade off one for the other. 

Most importantly, the conclusions of the report around the increase in land use that would be needed to support current chicken meat production levels under ECC standards prompt questions about the sustainability of today’s production and consumption levels. In order to achieve a higher welfare production model that does not harm the environment, we must firstly be prepared to produce and consume less chicken meat.

A sustainable model of broiler production

Overall, the AVEC report fails to take a holistic view of sustainability, focusing on the short-term impacts of a transition to ECC standards on production costs and some environmental parameters, but does not mention any of its longer-term benefits, especially for human health. These advantages include a much lower use of antibiotics (for example, in 2022 in the Netherlands, farms using slower growing breeds used 9 times less antibiotics), and a lower risk of zoonotic diseases.

The ECC represents not just a cost but an investment in a more sustainable and ethical future for poultry production in Europe. By incorporating mitigation strategies and recognising the broader benefits, the poultry industry can navigate the challenges more effectively. This requires a balanced approach that considers long-term benefits over immediate costs, ensuring a more holistic, compassionate and sustainable future for poultry production. 

The journey towards higher welfare is a challenging one and won’t be without any economic consequences. But the welfare of the millions of broiler chickens that companies are responsible for should always be a matter of priority. Higher welfare should be the minimum baseline standard – in good times or in bad. So, let’s continue to work together to make the ECC a reality in Europe.


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