Chickens grown for meat production are genetically very different from layer hens bred to produce eggs. Meat chickens have been selectively bred to grow and gain weight very fast to maximise production, with birds reaching slaughter weight at 4-6 weeks old. The intensive farming of meat chickens at high stocking densities and poor housing conditions, has led to significant welfare issues. In addition to this, birds are exposed to various stressors and at a high risk of having their welfare compromised during handling, depopulation, transportation and at slaughter.
The RSPCA is working to address these issues by raising standards on farm through the Approved Farming Scheme and by advocating for better legislated minimum standards for all poultry on farm, during transport, and at slaughter. The significant extent to which the meat chicken industry has implemented the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard for meat chickens is clear evidence of the considerable progress that has been made in recent years to improve animal welfare, but there is still more to do.
The key challenges
Even before hatching, young or older breeder birds and longer egg storage times (more than seven days) can have negative impacts on the health and welfare of the hatched chick such as increasing the likelihood of physical abnormalities and early mortalities in chicks.
Genetics and breeder birds
The fast growth rate of meat chickens can result in welfare problems such as leg disorders, metabolic disorders, and subsequent higher mortality rates. This fast growth rate also means the breeder birds of these chickens are genetically predisposed to grow very quickly and are at a high risk of obesity. To manage this risk of obesity in breeder birds, their feed may be restricted resulting in birds being chronically hungry and stressed.
Stocking density, housing and environmental enrichment
The stocking density and housing conditions in which chickens are kept has a significant impact on their welfare. Chickens housed at high stocking densities can have higher mortality rates, are more behaviourally restricted, and can have poorer leg health. Housing conditions that provide chickens with inadequate lighting, poor ventilation and air quality, and poor litter quality can lead to serious welfare and health issues. Chickens are naturally motivated to perform behaviours such as ground scratching, ground pecking, perching, dustbathing and foraging. When they are housed in barren environments, that do not accommodate for these highly motivated behavioural needs, bird welfare can be compromised.
On-farm euthanasia methods
When chickens are weak, sick, injured, unable to walk, or will not recover from a disease or condition, they are euthanased on-farm. One of the most common methods of on-farm euthanasia for chickens is manual cervical dislocation, however, this method does not result in immediate loss of consciousness and therefore birds may experience pain and distress prior to death. Captive bolt gun devices and carbon dioxide gas killing are two alternative more humane on-farm euthanasia methods, but they unfortunately also have some associated welfare issues.
Handling, depopulation and transport
Once chickens are ready for slaughter they are ‘caught’ by hand or by machine and placed into crates for transport. The practice of depopulation (catching) is stressful because of the disturbance to the birds during the pick-up process; feed and water deprivation prior to catching; noise and dust during catching; disruption of the dark period and resting; and handling at catching, particularly where multiple pick-ups occur within one shed. Then during transport, chickens are exposed to various stressors including weather, the micro-environments of transport crates, minimal space allowance, social disturbance, noise, vehicle vibrations and motion, as well as feed and water deprivation.
Stunning and slaughter methods
At the abattoir, meat chickens are stunned (rendered unconscious) before slaughter. In Australia, this occurs either by electrical stunning or controlled atmosphere (gas) stunning. Electrical stunning systems have inherent animal welfare issues including the inverting and shackling of conscious birds, risk of painful pre-stun shocks and variability in stun effectiveness. Controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) has significant welfare advantages in comparison to electrical stunning systems because it does not require shackling of conscious birds. However, due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide gas being aversive to birds there are still some associated welfare issues.
What are the priorities to address these animal welfare challenges?
The RSPCA has identified 11 priorities in the meat chicken industry to address these challenges, with the aim of ensuring all chickens experience good animal welfare throughout their lives. These priorities are listed below. To read more about the challenges and priorities for good animal welfare in the meat chicken industry click here.
|1. Genetics||Breeding programs prioritise traits that optimise welfare and focus on improving mobility and skeletal health and decreasing cardiovascular and metabolic issues. Slower-growing breeds are increasingly represented within the Australian commercial flock.|
|2. Stocking density||Meat chickens are provided with their optimal space requirements throughout their lives, so all birds can move around freely and perform natural behaviours such as perching, foraging and dust bathing.|
|3. Housing||Meat chickens are housed in conditions that ensure bird comfort and provide them with the opportunity to perform natural behaviours, including: natural light or light of a broad-spectrum equivalent to natural light adequate ventilation to maintain air quality and shed temperatures litter of a preferred substrate and that is actively managed to maintain litter quality. In addition to indoor housing, birds are provided with climate-appropriate veranda and/or outdoor access that offers shelter and further opportunities to perform natural behaviours.|
|4. Enrichment||Meat chickens are housed in complex environments and provided with effective environmental enrichment and perches that promote natural behaviours and positive experiences.|
|5. Handling||Meat chickens are handled using low-stress, best-practice handling methods that promote positive human-animal interactions by skilled stockpersons who are specifically trained in poultry welfare.|
|6. On-farm euthanasia||On-farm euthanasia methods involve minimal handling and result in loss of consciousness in a way that birds do not experience pain or distress prior to death.|
|7. Depopulation||Meat chickens are picked up using an all-in all-out system so that only a single depopulation of each shed is required.|
|8. Transport||Meat chickens are transported in vehicles that provide sufficient space and are equipped with ventilation systems that ensure bird comfort and minimise the risk of thermal stress during transport.|
|9. Stunning and slaughter||Meat chickens are stunned and slaughtered using methods which eliminate the handling and shackling of conscious birds. Meat chickens are effectively stunned prior to slaughter without pain or distress.|
|10. Hatchery||Eggs and chicks are managed in a way that ensures good chick welfare.|
|11. Breeder birds||Breeding programs prioritise traits that optimise welfare, including addressing obesity in breeder birds.|
What else can be done?
By choosing products farmed to higher welfare standards and supporting farming practices that prioritise animal welfare, we can all make a positive difference to the way farm animals are treated and give them a life worth living.
Through the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, the RSPCA works closely with farmers committed to raising meat chickens to higher animal welfare standards. Meat chicken growers farming to the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme standard are already on a pathway of continuous improvement and working towards addressing the challenges described. Since releasing our first animal welfare standards for meat chickens in 2010, more than 2.5 billion chickens have benefitted from better conditions on farm.
Addressing all the priorities outlined here will inevitably result in a higher cost of raising, transporting and slaughtering meat chickens. As a result, consumers who expect good standards of animal welfare should also expect to pay more for chicken meat products to support the investment required to achieve higher welfare standards for meat chickens.