Blog by Dr Tracey Jones, Global Director of Food Business
The UK retail sector claims to care about animal welfare, so you would expect every major UK retailer to be on board with the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), which addresses the most pressing welfare concerns and aims to raise baseline standards for all chickens reared for meat (broiler chickens). As a minimum, this means using breeds of chicken with proven welfare outcomes, giving the birds more space to live in, an enriched environment, as well as a more humane end. But the majority of UK supermarkets have not yet made this pledge.
Since its inception in 2017, over 360 companies (more than 120 of them in the UK) have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, including KFC, Subway, Burger King, Greggs, Nando’s, Pizza Express and Papa Johns. But ONLY TWO UK retailers – M&S and Waitrose – have made the pledge. M&S is now fully compliant on all its fresh chicken under the Oakham GoldTM label (RSPCA Assured). This stands in stark contrast to countries like France, where EVERY major retailer has made the commitment, and are now creating roadmaps to facilitate their transition.
There is an urgent need to improve welfare standards in the chicken industry. Over one billion chickens are reared for meat each year in the UK. The vast majority are fast-growing breeds that suffer a plethora of health and welfare issues, living in overcrowded sheds – UK legislation permits a stocking density of up to 39kg/m2 (compared to the BCC which requires 30kg/m2).
The UK retail sector is perpetuating this misery – yet it has huge influence and the ability to drive real change for chicken welfare. If the supermarkets came together, they could easily stimulate the market, working with suppliers to increase the pace of transition in a cost-effective way, making higher welfare the new standard. An estimated 28% of the UK’s chicken supply currently sits under a BCC commitment, with the potential to meaningfully improve the lives of more than 300 million birds. If ALL the UK supermarkets signed up to the BCC, that figure would leap to 89%*1
‘Half measures’ aren’t cutting it
We are seeing partial moves towards the BCC from retailers, but they are not enough. For example, this year Sainsbury’s has finally reduced the stocking density of its own-brand chicken to 30kg/m2, giving its birds 20% more space than the industry standard. But, it has yet to commit to breed change which is central to affording chickens a better quality of life. Others are offering a ‘tier’ of BCC-compliant chicken – such as Tesco’s ‘Room to Roam’ or Morrison’s ‘Space to Roam’. However, these typically make up a small proportion of their full chicken offer.
In May this year, a staggering 96% of the 32,000 Co-op members who voted at its AGM, supported the adoption of the Better Chicken Commitment. Despite this overwhelming majority in favour of significantly improving chicken welfare standards, Co-op’s directors decided against it – citing cost as an issue in moving to slower growing breeds.
UK supermarkets should be following the science on the need to change breed and to make real, meaningful improvements to the lives of millions of chickens in their supply. By using more robust breeds, and providing them with better living conditions, chickens can live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives – and that’s something all consumers expect.
Chickens can’t behave like chickens
Broiler chickens have been selected for high growth rate, feed efficiency and large breast meat yield. Compared to 50 years ago, conventional broiler chickens grow more than four times as fast and have a breast that is 80% bigger. Weighed down by their unnaturally fast-growing bodies (their average growth rate is 65g a day compared to 46-50g a day for slower growing breeds), many of these birds have poor functioning immune systems, and suffer from heart defects, breast muscle inflammatory diseases, and high rates of foot and hock lesions.
Fast-growing breeds also often have poor walking ability and high rates of lameness. They spend most of their time (85%) sitting doing nothing, instead of behaving like chickens who naturally like to perch, peck, forage, scratch and play. Compared with slower growing breeds, which are often described as active and happy birds, fast-growing chickens are lethargic and perceived as flat and stressed. And all this is happening on a huge scale. Of the 1.15 billion chickens reared for meat in the UK in 2020, around 90% of them were fast-growing breeds.
Research has shown that higher welfare breeds show an increase in highly motivated behaviours, such as foraging, scratching, perching, play and dustbathing. This indicates greater cognitive stimulation for the chickens, improved mental wellbeing and more opportunities to express positive welfare.
Bad for chickens, bad for us
The routine use of antibiotics in livestock farming increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which is a growing threat for humans. So, it’s worrying to see that fast-growing chickens are three times more likely to require antibiotics than slower growing breeds. Higher welfare breeds, with their improved natural immunity, will have better overall health, reduced risk of mortality and less need for antibiotics. In addition, birds with improved immunity also represent a reduced biosecurity risk for producers to manage due to the lower probability of contracting and spreading disease.
Fast-growing chickens are bad news for consumers too, as the suffering of the birds is reflected in the quality of the meat produced. The speed of the chickens' growth and their high body weight can cause their muscles to degenerate which leads to lower quality, less nutritious meat. Muscle diseases, which can develop from as young as two weeks of age, can lead to ‘white striping’ where the fatty and connective tissue deposits produce white lines or striations parallel to the muscle fibres. This poorer quality meat yields significantly more fat content and less protein. Also, worryingly high rates of ‘wooden breast’ is caused by tissue degeneration and inflammation, leading to pale, tough meat. And fast-growing breeds have additionally been found to be more susceptible to diseases that contribute to food poisoning, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E.coli.
UK retailers need to step up – now!
All chickens deserve a good quality of life, including good health, positive mental wellbeing and the ability to express natural behaviours. M&S has led the way with its investment and successful roadmap for change, demonstrating that moving to BCC-compliant fresh chicken as a baseline standard is commercially possible.
It is up to all UK retailers to bring about the urgent change that is needed in the UK chicken industry. Until they do, they are failing the chickens they are responsible for, but they are also failing their customers too. Any UK supermarkets yet to adopt the BCC need to step up, sign up and make the move to a higher welfare baseline without further delay.