Higher welfare chicken more sustainable? RSPCA backs fresh research

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/nastya_ph
©GettyImages/nastya_ph

Related tags: Animal welfare, Rspca

A new study reveals that producing meat from slower-growing chickens – as opposed to fast-growing breeds – can ‘significantly’ reduce mortality and culling.

An independent study carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has suggested that higher welfare chicken could reduce waste for farmers and improve sustainability.

Commissioned by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the study compared the health, welfare and production characteristics of four different chicken breeds.

Specifically, the three fastest growing meat chicken breads used ‘most extensively worldwide’ were compared with a widely used, ‘commercially viable’ slower-growing higher-welfare breed.

Conventional production ‘potentially very wasteful’

Findings revealed that 49% of faster-growing birds could die or should be culled due to welfare issues such as lameness – compared to 16% of the slower growing chickens.

Further, 78% of the fast-growing chickens were likely to have poor quality meat with white striping, whereas this was the case for just 10% of the slower-growing birds.

Twenty-three percent of the fast-growing breeds had a condition known as wooden breast (compared to just 1% of the slower growing breed). Wooden breast syndrome makes the meat hard, chewy, and unmarketable.

And compared with the slower growing breeds, the fast-growing birds needed approximately 67% more woodshavings to maintain the floor covering in a good condition.

“It has often been argued that intensive systems used to produce chicken meat are more sustainable than higher welfare systems,”​ noted RSPCA chicken welfare specialist Kate Parkes.

“This new, independent research shows that conventional production with fast-growing breeds is potentially very wasteful with farmers facing the loss of up to nearly half of their flock due to increased mortality and culling for poor leg health. In addition, our research shows that fast-growing birds are significantly more likely to produce poorer quality meat, through conditions known as white striping and wooden breast.”

Welfare concerns

From an animal welfare perspective, faster-growing breeds were found to be up to four times more likely to suffer from hockburn – a condition whereby birds suffer sores to their legs from resting on litter.

They spent 1.4 times more time sitting than slower growing chickens, and spent 6.6 times less time perching. Further, they spent 1.5 times more time feeding, which the RSPCA puts down to the increased energy required to grow at an ‘accelerated rate’.

“This study is the first of its kind in the UK to compare these fast-growing birds with a slower-growing breed and the results are clear: the genetics of these fast growing breeds impacts their welfare to such an extent that many could be considered as having a life not worth living,”​ noted Parkes.

“These conventional breeds, which account for the majority of the world’s meat chicken, are far more likely to experience serious suffering from health issues like lameness, heart attack and hockburn and are more likely to be unable to live the ‘normal’ life of a chicken.”

UK backing higher welfare

The UK’s new Agriculture Bill​, which was introduced 16 January 2020, places increased importance on animal welfare.

As of 2021, farmers and land managers in England that provide ‘public goods’, such as better air and water quality, improved access to the countryside, measures to reduce flooding, and ensure higher animal welfare, will be rewarded with public money.

Unsurprisingly, the RSPCA has welcomed this initiative. “We are pleased the UK Government are looking to link farm support payments with better welfare and feel chicken is an area where farmers could be given financial support to move to using slower growing, higher welfare breeds,”​ said Parkes.

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