There’s a stark contrast between citizens’ views on how broiler chickens should live and the reality of industrial farms. A recent survey – the first ever to ask EU citizens about their understanding of broiler chicken welfare – shows that an overwhelming majority want chickens’ lives to be significantly improved, and demand both better welfare laws and more transparent labelling.
Ninety percent of the 6.5 billion broiler chickens – raised specifically for meat – reared in the EU each year are from breeds that are engineered to grow fast. So fast that, in their very short lifespan of only 6 weeks, they can typically suffer from heart disease, respiratory problems, and chronic and painful lameness. Reared under industrial conditions with no natural light or fresh air, and in overcrowded conditions, they need significant amounts of antibiotics to remain healthy.
Most EU citizens never see a living broiler chicken, as the industry operates behind closed doors. A recent survey by ComRes for Eurogroup for Animals of more than 7,000 people in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland – the EU’s top chicken meat producing countries – and Belgium asked what they actually know about broiler welfare, what they deem important, and about their consumer preferences.
The results – revealed in the European Parliament stakeholder debate ‘Improving the Welfare of Broiler Chickens’ today – found that 89% of respondents across the 7 EU countries believe broiler chickens should be better protected than they are now, with 84% recognising that chickens feel pain and 82% stating that they think it is important for chickens to enjoy their lives without suffering.
87% of respondents believe that is it important for broiler chickens to live in an environment where they can behave naturally. 85% think it is important for chickens to have access to an outdoor area, and 86% say it’s important that they are humanely slaughtered. 89% think it is important that chickens live in a clean environment with unpolluted air, and a whopping 90% say that it’s important that they should be healthy and free from illness or disease.
The European Parliament agrees. In October it adopted a Resolution urging the European Commission to improve the welfare of broiler chickens not only for the sake of the animals, but also to reduce the sector’s use of antibiotics, which is increasingly threatening human health.
But there’s a stark contrast between citizens’ and MEPs’ views on how chickens should live and the reality of life on intensive farms. There are major limits to the current Broiler Directive. First, farms keeping parent birds and hatcheries are outside its scope, thus excluding animals particularly at risk of suffering from degraded welfare: breeders and baby chicks. Secondly, a series of exemptions allow producers to use much higher stocking densities than the maximum allowed in the Directive, to the extent that an overwhelming 66% of broiler chickens in the EU are kept this way. Lastly, the Directive doesn’t regulate common industry practices that are detrimental to broiler chickens’ welfare, such as selective breeding for fast growth, the lack of enrichment materials and natural light in barns, and the lack of outdoor access – the latter being something that 85% of survey respondents say they think is important.
“The outcome of the survey speak volumes in terms of the overwhelming support of citizens to better protect the welfare of broiler chickens,” said Reineke Hameleers, Director at Eurogroup for Animals. “Given the huge disparity between citizens’ views and the reality on industrial farms, we believe that these findings should be a clear wake up call for the industry and regulators alike to improve standards and invest in transparency and consumer information.”
“87% of the survey respondents want the Commission to raise standards and include provisions that impact welfare,” said Anja Hazekamp MEP, who hosted the stakeholder debate on 6th March together with the Parliamentary Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals and supported by Eurogroup for Animals. “For too many years, chickens have been waiting for protection. A huge majority of the European Parliament recently called on the Commission to drastically increase the health and welfare of chickens by providing natural light, clean air, more living space and the use of a slower breed of chickens. The Commission must now act upon it!”
One way to achieve this could be through market-driven change. Following unprecedented successes in the US, there is a growing movement of animal advocates calling on European retailers, major food businesses and food outlets to adhere to the European (broiler) chicken commitment, which sets down a series of requirements that we consider the bare minimum for improving broiler welfare. Ultimately, though, citizens’ calls should translate into a revision of the broiler directive, an update of the slaughter regulation to introduce more humane methods, and the introduction of mandatory method-of-production labelling.
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Vienna Leigh, Senior Communications Officer
Tel: +32 2 740 0805