AUTHOR Elisa Tjärnström, GCAW Secretariat
Globally, chicken continues to be one of the most popular household foods. Recent market research indicates that consumers are looking for greater transparency and information when buying chicken products, and that food safety and animal welfare concerns have impact on purchasing decisions . In recent years, several civil society organizations have taken a growing interest in broiler welfare, making demands on the food industry to evolve conventional production methods.
It is clear there is now momentum within the global chicken industry to accelerate progress towards improved animal welfare. The Global Coalition for Animal Welfare (GCAW) has an important role to play in maintaining and encouraging this momentum. Throughout 2020, GCAW deepened its focus on broiler chicken welfare and the GCAW Broiler Chicken Welfare Working Group continued its work to identify and overcome present and emerging challenges by working collaboratively to drive change within the industry. At the end of 2020, GCAW members pooled their knowledge to identify four main themes which will provide a focus for driving progress in 2021: the provision of environmental enrichment; reduced stocking density; the transition to slower growing breeds; and more humane slaughter practices.
Provision of enrichment within broiler houses, such as perches and pecking objects, provides the birds with a more complex and stimulating environment. This reduces stress and frustration and results in improved welfare outcomes. Several GCAW member companies are currently running pilot programs and trials to determine the most effective forms of enrichment, with a view to implementing these on farms during 2021. Specific challenges identified relating to enrichment include labour requirements and the management of enrichment materials at the time of depopulation. In order to support companies’ efforts in selecting and implementing effective environmental enrichment, GCAW will be producing a best practice guide to broiler chicken enrichment in 2021.
Reduced stocking density
The stocking density used within broiler chicken production is another issue receiving significant attention, the key concern being the limited opportunities for the birds to move and behave naturally within broiler houses at higher stocking densities, particularly as they grow in size. With more space, chickens can perform more of the behaviours that are important to them, such as perching and dustbathing, resulting in greater comfort and enabling the birds to meet their behavioural and physiological needs. Efforts are underway within the industry to identify key welfare indicators for determining appropriate stocking densities, comparing welfare outcomes at different stocking densities and live weights in order to support management decisions.
Breeds with improved welfare outcomes
Related to stocking density is consideration of the breeds of broiler chicken chosen to rear. There is movement underway in some parts of the industry to transition to broiler chicken breeds with higher welfare potential. These breeds are generally slower growing and have more robust physiology, with greater leg strength and lower mortality rates. Challenges are the potential efficiency losses and questions around whole carcass utilisation in the value chain. GCAW activities will focus on how to resolve such issues. Another challenge in certain geographies is that alternative, slower-growing breeds are not yet widely available. In 2021 GCAW will invest in regional supplier mapping, assisting companies in identifying potential supply. This builds on previous engagement with the industry, for example with European broiler chicken suppliers and the US National Chicken Council. Besides engaging suppliers, GCAW regularly invites external speakers to present to the group, with presentations at the end of 2020 focusing on the potential of slower growing breeds and the challenges and opportunities associated with higher welfare production systems.
Welfare at slaughter
Another key focus for the chicken industry is welfare at slaughter, specifically a move towards the use of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning systems (CAS) rather than electrical water bath systems. The CAS method is less stressful for the birds, principally as it requires less handling of the birds while still alive, and carries a lower risk that birds are not rendered insensible before bleeding. Although transition to CAS systems requires significant investment, progress is being seen in several regions. Transitioning to CAS systems in regions such as Asia (with the exception of China), the Middle East and North Africa is, however, considered more difficult, requiring investment in more strategic partnerships and dedicated supply chains.
Many leading food companies, including the GCAW members, are motivated to meet the increasing demands for higher welfare chicken production, and are either currently investigating the feasibility of a transition to a higher welfare supply, or are addressing the individual elements of higher welfare within their supply chains. However, a particular concern is the low demand for higher welfare in processed chicken supply chains, which is key for enabling a sustainable economic model. Other concerns include the impact of higher welfare chicken production on overall environmental sustainability, with companies potentially being faced with some challenging trade-offs. In 2021, GCAW will produce a briefing paper on animal welfare and sustainability, identifying where there may be opportunity to mitigate such trade-offs.
The Global Coalition for Animal Welfare now represents some of the largest names in global food production and food service, as well as meat producers. Its size and scale enable the Coalition to engage effectively and meaningfully with industry stakeholders across the value chain. It is clear that the chicken industry is responding to calls for change, with more and more food companies actively working with producers to jointly understand and address systemic barriers to progress. What is uncertain, though, is how quickly change can and will be realized. Much is dependent on the extent to which the food industry can come together to build dialogue that leads to actions, to innovate, to break down barriers and to make further headway in 2021. Collaboration is key. GCAW will continue to work with all industry stakeholders to harness today’s momentum and play its part in realizing the change that is still to come.