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Higher welfare chicken could reduce waste and improve sustainability

New RSPCA research has shown slower growing chickens have a significantly reduced risk of mortality and culling and produce better meat quality.

5 March 2020, at 11:42am

The RSPCA has revealed that producing meat from slower-growing chickens can significantly reduce mortality and culling and improve meat quality.

An RSPCA-commissioned study compared the health, welfare and production characteristics of the three fastest-growing meat chicken breeds used most extensively worldwide with a widely used, commercially viable slower-growing higher-welfare breed.

The results of the research, which was carried out independently by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), showed that up to 49 percent of faster-growing birds could die or should be culled due to welfare issues such as lameness. This compares to 16 percent of the slower growing birds.

The study also showed that up to 78 percent of the fast-growing birds were likely to have poor quality meat with white striping (compared to 10 percent for the slower-growing breed) and up to 23 percent had a condition known as wooden breast (compared to just 1 percent of the slower growing breed).

Kate Parkes, chicken welfare specialist, from the RSPCA, said: “It has often been argued that intensive systems used to produce chicken meat are more sustainable than higher welfare systems. 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.

“However, birds with poor leg health are not always culled, and meat with white striping and wooden breast is still sold to consumers. Therefore, the cost of ‘standard’ chicken meat is being kept artificially low due to some of these issues not being adequately addressed and, as such, the rearing of fast-growing breeds seems to be a false economy, as well as presenting a serious welfare issue.

“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.”

The results of the study showed that, compared with the slower growing breed, the fast-growing breeds:

  • Were up to 7.8 times more likely to have white striping (fatty deposits) of the breast meat
  • Were up to 23 times more likely to suffer from a condition known as wooden breast - a condition where muscle cells have died
  • Were up to twice as likely to die or be culled primarily due to ill health (up to 11 percent)
  • Were up to 3.5 times more likely to suffer from moderate to severe lameness and require culling (up to 38 percent)
  • Needed approximately 67 percent more woodshavings to maintain the floor covering in a good condition.
  • Were up to four times more likely to suffer from hockburn, where birds suffer sores to their legs from resting on the litter, often for too long due to inactivity
  • Spent 1.4 times more time sitting (around 72 percent of the time compared to 51 percent for the slow-growing birds)*
  • Spent 6.6 times less time perching (daily average up to 1.2 percent, compared to the slower-growing breed which spent 11 percent of their time perching)*.
  • Spent 1.5 times more time feeding*, due to the energy they need to grow at an accelerated rate

Welfare issues highlighted in the results of the trial shows that faster-growing breeds:

Kate added: “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.

“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.”