It’s been ten years since Jamie Oliver’s documentary TV programme ‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners’ brought mass attention to the suffering faced by millions of farmed meat chickens.
‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners,’ and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s, ‘Hugh’s Chicken Run’, focused specifically on intensively farmed meat chickens – also known as broilers.
These are by far the most numerously produced farm animals for meat, with around 950 million being slaughtered each year in the UK and 62 billion worldwide.
The vast majority of chickens are still reared to standards that we believe aren’t good enough in terms of animal welfare. Ten years since ‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners’, and we’re still failing chickens.
The plight of chickens
Broiler welfare is one of the biggest welfare concerns in the world in terms of the severity of the welfare issues and the number of animals involved. A number of key issues still need to be addressed, particularly their growth rate, space allowance,and the provision of both natural light and environmental enrichment.
Broilers are still:
Genetically selected to grow very quickly. Today’s broilers can reach an average UK market weight of 2.2kg in 35 days.
Fast growth rates can be related to some of the most severe welfare problems seen in broilers today. Amongst other things, rapid growth can contribute to painful lameness, heart issues and organ failure.
Not given enough space to easily move around and perform natural behaviours. Being kept in crowded conditions means that it can be harder for farmers to maintain good air quality and clean, dry bedding for the birds. It can also mean that the birds can’t rest without being disturbed by their jostling neighbours.
When more than 15 birds are kept per square metre, there can be an increase in the risk of serious welfare problems developing. But many meat chickens are reared in spaces where there are roughly 19 birds per square metre.
Given no environmental enrichment, or not enough. Chickens are intelligent, curious animals. They like to perch, peck and scratch.
An environment enriched with things like hay bales and perches stimulates the birds natural behaviours and encourages them to be more active. The fastest growing breeds may not be able to use perches, even when provided, because of their poor leg health.
Kept at low lighting levels. Chickens legally only have to be provided with a light level of 20 lux. To give you an idea of how dark this is – street lights begin to turn on when light levels reach around 100 lux. Most broilers are living in light levels significantly lower than those we experience at dusk, all day round.
In contrast natural daylight can be from 30,000 lux to 100,000 lux. Chickens have well developed colour vision and – similar to humans’ – sight is their primary sense. Would you like to be kept in a dim room all your life?
The Pan-European broiler chicken ask
The market for higher welfare chicken hasn’t increased and chicken production is forecast to rise exponentially – 2020 it’s expected to be the largest global meat sector.
A number of animal protection organisations, including the RSPCA, have reached an agreement on what the most pressing welfare concerns related to broiler production are, and how they can be collectively addressed through production requirements.
These concerns have informed the development of the Pan-European broiler ask, which calls for food businesses to commit to raising standards across the whole supply chain of fresh and ingredient chicken by 2026.
We really believe this approach presents the best opportunity to improve chicken welfare in over a decade.
How you can support better welfare for broiler chickens
You can support the welfare of chickens by purchasing higher welfare meat. Currently, our welfare standards for meat chicken (which we use for our RSPCA Assured label) are the only standards that meet the criteria of the Pan-European broiler chicken Ask across indoor, free-range and organic production.
We also campaign to improve the welfare of as many farm animals as possible, at every stage of their lives.
Keep up to date with our latest campaigns, and find out how you can get involved, by signing up for our campaign newsletter.
For more detailed information on broiler chickens, our welfare concerns, and what we can do to improve them visit our meat chicken advice and welfare pages.