Today, Compassion in World Farming released its third iteration of ChickenTrack, a one-of-a-kind report capsulizing the state of the chicken industry’s progress toward higher welfare practices. For the first time, this year’s report features 12 companies that have now begun reporting their progress against the Better Chicken Commitment.
Over 9 billion chickens were raised in the United States last year, producing over 44 billion pounds of meat. An overwhelming majority of these birds, known as “broiler chickens” in the industry, live in poor welfare conditions. Most broiler chickens are raised in overcrowded, artificially lit warehouses with no enrichments for the birds to interact with, such as perches or straw bales. In addition, today’s broiler chickens have been genetically modified to grow so large so quickly that they can hardly walk, as their legs and organs are unable to support their own weight. As a result, the birds suffer painful muscle myopathies, lesions from prolonged sitting, and psychological distress as they are unable to run, fly, or interact with enrichments even if they are provided. They are typically slaughtered by being hung upside down by shackles and dunked in electrified water before having their throats cut.
The Road to Better Welfare
In response to growing welfare concerns for broiler chickens, Compassion USA and other groups joined forces to create the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) to drive the food industry toward higher welfare practices. The BCC is a science-based welfare policy that sets standards for four main components of broiler welfare: stocking density, housing environment, breed, and slaughter. To date, 220 companies have committed to the BCC.
While ample scientific evidence exists to inform standards for stocking density, housing environment, and slaughter, at the time of the BCC’s creation there had yet to be sufficient evidence to inform a standard for higher welfare breeds. That changed late last year when the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) released its highly anticipated approved breeds list and protocol for assessing new breeds, based on a multi-year study conducted by scientists at the University of Guelph. With this information now in hand, 2022 is the first year that food businesses are equipped to address all four components of the BCC. Companies must transition to higher welfare stocking densities, housing, and slaughter methods by 2024 and to higher welfare breeds by 2026 to meet the deadlines of the BCC.
ChickenTrack 2021 provides key insights into the welfare and environmental benefits of GAP’s newly approved breeds, as well as an in-depth look at overall welfare progress within the industry.
Unsurprisingly, none of the main broiler breeds used in today’s intensive chicken production operations were approved by GAP. This highlights the welfare deficiencies of these birds and the urgent need to transition to breeds that are slower-growing and have more evenly distributed muscle mass, rather than concentrated muscle mass in the breast.
Higher welfare breeds also possess the potential to improve environmental sustainability. Slower-growing breeds require less protein intake, which can reduce their nitrogen excretion by tenfold per unit of protein removed from their diets. In addition, higher welfare breeds provide a 30-362% greater net yield of usable, quality breast meat because of reduced incidence of muscle myopathies such as woody breast and white striping.
Despite the pandemic and inability to make progress on the breed component until recently, several companies have made significant advancements in broiler welfare. Applegate has already met the BCC’s stocking density and housing environment requirements for 100% of its supply. Natural Grocers reports that over 90% of the chicken it sells meets the BCC requirements for stocking density, housing environment, and slaughter. This is also the first year that companies have begun to publicly report their progress against their BCC commitments, signaling a transition from the planning phase to the implementation phase of higher welfare.
In 2021, Compassion USA launched the US Working Group for Broiler Welfare, a cross-section of companies across the food industry that have come together to explore practical strategies and creative solutions that will enable them to progress toward their commitments and shift broiler chicken supply chains in a way that meaningfully improves welfare. By coming together on this issue, the Working Group eases economic transition for all, leverages expertise and experiences, and mitigates risk for companies’ bottom line. With only two years left to meet the stocking density, housing, and slaughter components and four years left to meet the breed component of the BCC, ChickenTrack plays a key role in both ensuring companies honor their commitments and in encouraging a continuous, unified shift toward higher welfare.
As part of our mission to end factory farming, Compassion in World Farming is working with major producers to get Better Chicken on the ground and onto store shelves. Follow the Better Chicken conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with #ChickenTrack. For more information, download the full report.