EFSA opinions on the welfare of laying hens and broilers
The long-awaited EFSA opinions on the welfare of laying hens and broilers have been published, and it is very encouraging to see that the recommendations confirm that the Cage Age must end.
For laying hens, the EFSA clearly indicates that cages should no longer be used, and painful mutilations, such as beak trimming, should be abandoned in favour of other preventive measures against injurious pecking (e.g. enrichment materials).
The recommended maximum stocking density is 4 birds/m2 (as opposed to 9 birds/m2 in the current legislation) and the prospective cage-free systems should also include elevated structures, as well as 1 nest/7 hens.
The EFSA further stresses that systems that provide daylight, outdoor access or covered verandas have positive effects on behaviour and help to prevent feather damage. Thus, the presence of a covered veranda is recommended for all categories of birds and should always be available (if the climate allows for it). The availability of an outdoor range is also encouraged. In terms of lighting regime, natural light should be provided in addition to artificial light. Both laying hens and breeders should be able to have eight hours of continuous darkness per day (with artificial lights turned off) as well as periods of dusk and dawn. Feed restriction practices cannot be performed except for the time before slaughter, and for no longer than 10 hours.
The new scientific opinion stresses the importance of systematically measuring animal welfare by adopting harmonised assessment methods and scoring systems across the EU.
It is important to highlight that several welfare assessment protocols already exist for poultry but are currently only used voluntarily. Among the important parameters to monitor, according to the EFSA, are on-farm mortality, wounds, plumage damage, keel bone fractures and carcass condemnation at slaughter. Implementing protocols to monitor, among others, keel bone fractures and plumage condition will also serve to encourage further progress in genetic selection and to enable producers to choose strains that are more resilient, with a reduced risk of bone lesions and other kinds of injuries.
We are glad to read that many of these recommendations are in line or close to our position outlined in the Hens' Asks.
The main recommendations on broiler welfare include a maximum stocking density of 11 kg/m2, which is considered essential for broilers to express natural behaviours, to rest properly and to support health. Considering that, due to the existing derogations in the Broilers Directive chickens are often reared at stocking densities up to 42 kg/m2, this recommendation is extremely welcome.
Another crucial set of recommendations regard measures to move away from selection for fast growth rates. The EFSA recommends using slower-growing commercial breeds and selecting new slower growing breeds that do not require to be kept on restricted diets to retain better health. Genetic selection should not aim to obtain breeds with even faster growth rates. This will also ensure that broiler breeders are no longer kept on restricted diets that cause chronic hunger. Genetic selection should obtain strains with a growth limited to a maximum of 50 g/day to allow the broilers to maintain better health and be active. The EFSA points to the fact that the slower the hybrid grows, the higher the level of animal welfare. Welfare in broilers and their breeders must be improved both by emphasising these traits in the selection index, as well as using hybrids with lower growth rates. Of course, the EFSA also emphasises that cages cannot be used for broiler breeders.
All forms of mutilations should be avoided in broiler breeders and all preventive methods should be in place to avoid the potential welfare consequences that could appear when mutilations are not performed.
In terms of rearing environment, the EFSA stresses that on-farm hatching enables newborn chicks to have immediate access to feed and water. This prevents prolonged hunger and thirst. During the rearing phase, covered verandas should be provided to both broilers and breeders to allow birds to choose between different temperatures, light conditions and substrate quality and promote foraging, exploratory and comfort behaviours.
Elevated platforms and dark brooders for broilers and perches for broiler breeders should be provided to create functional areas and environmental enrichment to the birds. Dry and friable litter should be provided from day one and new litter material should be added throughout the rearing period to support comfort and exploratory and foraging behaviour.
Once again, the EFSA stresses the importance of implementing harmonised assessment methods and scoring systems to measure mortality on farm as well as the prevalence of wounds, carcass condemnation, and footpad dermatitis in broilers at slaughter. These iceberg indicators can be useful to monitor the on-farm welfare of broilers in Europe.
The scientific opinion also mentions that as the culling of day-old male chicks has now been banned in some European countries (with more to follow most probably, and with the ambitions of the EU Commission to propose such a ban EU-wide), rearing the males of dual-purpose hybrids (animals bred for meat and egg production) is a good alternative to rearing slower-growing broilers. In-ovo sexing was also mentioned as an alternative to male chick culling in the opinion on laying hen welfare.
We warmly welcome the ambitious limit to stocking densities at 11 kg/m2 and the emphasis on the importance of the influence of genetics on broiler welfare (which, sadly, was not as pronounced in the opinion on laying hen welfare).
However, it is concerning that thinning isn’t explicitly discouraged. It is also regrettable that more information on the specifics of higher welfare breeds wasn’t included, as well as a clear recommendation to phase out the use of fast-growing breeds.