Chicken is the most popular meat consumed by Australians – on average, Australians eat 47 kg of chicken each year. This high demand coupled with a consumer expectation of low prices, leads to the production of genetically selected breeds of meat chicken, chosen for their ability to grow to large sizes quickly at a young age.
There are currently two main commercial meat chicken breeds in Australia, both of which have been selectively bred for an increased growth rate and body mass. Typically, fast-growing meat chickens reach the target weight for slaughter by 4-6 weeks of age. Unfortunately, this genetic selection has led to an increased risk of significant animal welfare issues including skeletal abnormalities, lameness, metabolic diseases and higher rates of mortality.
Fast-growing meat chickens have lower levels of activity throughout their lives, and typically spend more time sitting, eating and drinking, in contrast to slow-growing birds who spend more time perching, walking and ground scratching. As a result, fast-growing meat chickens are more likely to develop painful skin conditions as they spend more time in contact with the litter.
Fast-growing birds are still motivated to be active and perform normal behaviours such as perching, even when they are physically unable to due to their large body sizes. This can cause frustration for the birds.
What can be done to address this?
Slower-growing breeds of meat chickens with improved animal welfare outcomes have been developed and are in use commercially overseas. These breeds are more expensive to produce and therefore result in higher-priced chicken. A proportion of consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay this increased price.
While slower-growing meat chicken breeds would lead to an increase in cost, their introduction would have significant positive animal welfare impacts and would provide Australian consumers with additional choice when purchasing higher-welfare chicken.
These breeds could be introduced into commercial production in Australia through the development of domestic breeding programs or the importation of existing genetics from overseas, both of which may take a number of years.