A campaign to radically change the way broiler chickens are produced has been gathering pace across Europe.
It stipulates a change in breed type, stocking densities and lighting levels, among other standards. So what are the implications for poultry producers?
One of the biggest influences on broiler production over the coming years is the pressure on retailers to adopt the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC).
The campaign is an initiative involving a coalition of European animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, to improve the life and health of broiler chickens through improved husbandry. (See box below “What is the Better Chicken Commitment”).
Free-range broiler chicken market share
Cost of rearing a conventional broiler
Cost of rearing a BCC bird
The amount of extra land required to produce a tonne of BCC poultrymeat
While the commitment is not enshrined in law, the coalition is asking retailers and food outlets to pledge to source chicken only from producers applying the higher welfare standards by 2026.
A number of retail business across Europe have already committed to the scheme, including some UK businesses (see box). But what might it mean for farmers?
Poultry vets Ian Lowery and Stephen Lister (Crowshall Veterinary Services LLP) recently compared the six new proposed standards against those of the current Assured Chicken Production (ACP) scheme, which accounts for about 90% of UK poultrymeat production.
They found significant differences in three areas, which are likely to present considerable challenges for producers.
Broilers kept to ACP standards can be reared to a maximum stocking density of 38kg/sq m (compared with 42kg/sq m in the rest of Europe).
In order to do so, the stockperson responsible for them is sufficiently qualified and the farm registered with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha).
By law, housing must be able to maintain a comfortable environment for birds with dry litter, even in extreme weather conditions.
The BCC calls for a reduction of stocking densities to 30kg/sq m but does not explain how the maximum stocking density limit was decided.
It is broadly agreed that higher stocking can be associated with poor welfare – and lowering bird densities can improve growth rates and gait scores.
But the effects do not change linearly and are not consistent over all welfare indicators, such as leg health, mortality, growth rate or bird activity.
Environmental and litter management is instead considered a more effective way to deliver better welfare outcomes – and research has found little difference in the integrated welfare scores of birds stocked at a range between 23kg-47kg/sq m.
In terms of sheer space needed, a shed rearing broilers to Red Tractor standards can house almost 30% more birds for every growing cycle, and total liveweight per square meter is about 50% higher, according to Adas.
Only broilers that meet the criteria of the RSPCA’s Broiler Breed Welfare Assessment Protocol are permitted by the BCC, because they “demonstrate higher welfare outcomes”.
A significant part of this is that growth rates are limited to 60g daily liveweight gain. “There is no explanation as to how this threshold has been determined,” says Mr Lowery.
Birds are tested by the RSPCA under low stocking densities (18kg/sq m) in small trial pens.
According to Mr Lowery, these conditions are not commercial and can lead to higher growth rates than those seen on-farm in some broiler breeds, potentially leading to issues with leg health and footpad integrity that may not be present in field conditions.
In terms of economic measures, the slower-growing birds would mean 6.19 cycles a year compared with 7.45 on a farm producing Red Tractor birds, based on it taking 49 days for a slower-growing bird to reach 2.45kg, compared with 39 days for a conventional broiler.
The BCC calls for lighting in sheds to be at least 50 lux, with windows installed to provide natural light. Most poultry sheds in the UK now have windows installed, or will have to in the coming years if they wish to remain part of ACP.
But the review conducted by Crowshall could find no indication of a welfare benefit to increasing the light intensity to that level.
Instead, Mr Lowery suggests assessing how chickens perceive brightness would be a more effective way to determine welfare benefits based on lighting.
What is the Better Chicken Commitment
Almost two years ago, a sparse document appeared on the website of several NGOs and charities concerned with animal welfare.
It was styled as a letter addressed to businesses in the poultrymeat supply chain and signed by about 30 groups, the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming included.
It called for changes to the way broilers are produced across Europe by 2026. Many of which, such as the provision of natural light and enrichments, are already common in the UK.
But the document also proposed cutting stocking densities by almost 25%, changing lighting regimes and minimising daily growth rates by moving away from more efficient breeds to slower-growing birds.
The campaign has moved on. Today there is a slick website calling on consumers to “choose happy chicken” that features compelling videos and animations.
The European Chicken Commitment has morphed into the Better Chicken Commitment and a range of retailers and restaurants, including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and KFC have signed up.
Tesco is understood to be running a limited trial of the concept, and the UK’s biggest poultry integrator, 2 Sisters Food Group, says it is creating a brand that meet the guidelines.
The NFU has said that, if the market moves towards producing birds to BCC guidelines, then farmers must be fairly compensated for the extra costs they incur.
The six BCC standards that producers will need to meet
- Comply with all EU animal welfare laws and regulations, regardless of the country of production.
- Implement a maximum stocking density of 30 Kg/m2 or less. Thinning is discouraged and if practised must be limited to one thin per flock.
- Adopt breeds that demonstrate higher welfare outcomes: either the following breeds, Hubbard JA757, 787, 957, or 987, Rambler Ranger, Ranger Classic, and Ranger Gold, or others that meet the criteria of the RSPCA Broiler Breed Welfare Assessment Protocol.
- Meet improved environmental standards. This means no cages or multitier systems, no less than 50 lux of light (including natural light), at least 2m of usable perch space, and two pecking substrates per 1,000 birds. Air quality to meet maximum requirements of Annex 2.3 of the EU broiler directive, regardless of stocking density.
- Adopt controlled atmospheric stunning using inert gas or multi-phase systems, or effective electrical stunning without live inversion.
- Demonstrate compliance with the above standards via third-party auditing and annual public reporting on progress towards this commitment