The most anticipated development in animal welfare for the last few years is finally here; a breeds list of higher-welfare chickens accepted into the Global Animal Partnership (G.A.P.) program, using recent peer-reviewed research from the University of Guelph.
This is a landmark event to those who have been expecting this list—such as the technical team at Compassion in World Farming. Higher-welfare chicken breeds are a vital part of the Better Chicken Commitment. Chickens who grow too fast commonly suffer from health problems such as respiratory failure and cardiovascular disease, in addition to leg, skin and bone ailments.
On the other hand, high-welfare birds—which also grow more slowly—show far lower incidences of physical health problems and a wider range of natural behaviors denoting a more positive mental wellbeing, while producing similar amounts of meat, which is also of better quality.
Today could prove to be a turning point in the race-to-the-bottom that is the rapid growth of animals for unnatural characteristics at the expense of their welfare.
The problem with fast-growing chickens
Modern, intensively farmed chickens have been selectively bred to grow about four times larger than the birds our grandparents would have recognized. This rapid weight gain comes at the expense of the birds’ quality of life.
Recently published research from the University of Guelph reaffirms what has been found repeatedly in scientific literature: fast-growing birds are less active, utilize physical enrichments less, and typically suffer more from hock burns and footpad dermatitis when compared to their slower-growing counterparts.
All the chickens’ health problems negatively affect the quality of the meat they produce. The University of Guelph research shows that a high percentage of industry-standard breeds are affected by Woody Breast and White Striping—meat quality issues caused by two things: 1) a disproportionately smaller cardiopulmonary system being unable to pump sufficient oxygenated blood to support normal body functions, and 2) larger, rapidly growing breast muscle fibers, which eventually break down once no further space is available for growth in the breast cavity, causing inflammation, tissue damage, and deposits of fatty scar tissue. According to the University of Guelph research, in comparison, Severe Woody Breast affected only a small percentage of higher welfare breeds.
The trade-off: dark meat and sustainability
One of the more surprising results from the University of Guelph research is that total meat yields for the approved breeds and the industry-standard breeds are very similar. The total carcass weight of the higher-welfare birds is within a few percentage points of that of the faster-growing birds. The difference is that slower-growing birds produce less breast meat and more thigh, wing, and drumstick meat. This makes sense since these birds’ genetics better resemble their healthier and more natural ancestors, including more leg muscle to be active, than the faster-growing birds who have been selectively bred for more breast meat.
Dark meat is increasingly appealing to consumers, driven by U.S. demographic shifts and increased purchasing power of younger generations with more diverse palates—this is reflected in the closing value gap between white and dark meat.
Proponents of the status quo often point out that if slower-growing birds live longer, they will require more resources, such as feed, water, and heat. While this is true, there are sustainability implications of the higher welfare birds studied. There are also significant advantages to higher-welfare breeds that may benefit the overall environmental footprint of poultry production.
- Significantly less frequent occurrence of breast meat myopathies such as Woody Breast and White Striping translates to higher-quality meat and fewer carcass downgrades.
- Slower-growing birds can eat lower protein diets, which opens the door to integrating more sustainable feeds (e.g., nitrogen-fixing pulses) and less nutrient-rich manure.
The overall mortality of broiler chickens has increased from 5% to 7% in the last decade, according to the National Chicken Council. This represents hundreds of millions of birds lost and the wasting of associated feed and water to raise them.
What happens now
The practical implications of the conclusion of the University of Guelph research and the translation of its results into an approved breeds list from the Global Animal Partnership are far-reaching. [Note: Compassion in World Farming sits on the board of G.A.P., and our scientists contributed to ratifying the approved breeds list.] Food businesses now have a roadmap in the Better Chicken Commitment for improving the welfare of broiler chickens in their supply chains with all the directions and signposts clearly marked. Breed selection had been the missing part of the map, since there is no welfare gain from a perch if a bird is too weak or in too much pain to use it. But now we know how to get to higher welfare chicken production, there can be no further delays in over 200 food companies’ pursuit of promises made to their customers.
Compassion’s Food Business Team is working hard to let our corporate colleagues know about the finalization of the University of Guelph study and the approved breeds list from G.A.P. To see how it affects your business, please contact us.