A broiler chicken reaches its slaughter weight in just around 30 days (every year, broilers are even younger at slaughter). As with mostly all other livestock species, rapid growth and highly intensified husbandry lead to suffering, diseases, and damage.
More than six billion broiler chickens are slaughtered in the EU every year. Along with other poultry such as turkey and duck, broilers make up the largest share of total poultry production in the EU. Poland is currently the country that produces the most broiler chickens in the EU.
The white poultry meat is considered to be low in fat and is therefore very popular. An average person consumes around 15 kilograms of chicken meat a year. Poultry meat production in the EU accounted for 13.2 million tonnes in 2021. The (global) market is shared by a few corporations and the country that produces most poultry is the US, with more than 20 million tonnes yearly1,2.
The primary objective of intensive broiler production
To produce as much meat as possible at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this goal, many animals are kept in a very small area. They should be ready for slaughter as quickly as possible with low feed consumption.3
The price is paid by the animals
Behavioural disorders, diseases, and high death rates (5% to 7.5%) are the result. Often more than 30% of broilers are sick or injured when they arrive at the slaughterhouse, in intensive production hardly any of them can walk properly and pain-free after 30 days.
Not only the chickens that are used for meat production suffer for fattening. Methods that are relevant to animal welfare are also used in the breeding of broilers. Due to their rapid weight gain, highly bred fattening breeds have great problems with reproduction. When they reach sexual maturity at 24 weeks of age, they usually weigh more than six kilograms. This extreme weight leads to various diseases and high mortality. This in turn reduces the reproduction rate – because a seriously ill or dead chicken cannot reproduce.4,5
The 'solution' often chosen in practice is at the expense of the animals
The parent animal farms let their breeding animals starve until sexual maturity. They get just 40% or less of the amount of food they would eat if they had free access to the food. Weight gain is artificially delayed, the reproductive rate is increased – and the parent animals continue to pass on the characteristic of rapid weight gain to their offspring.6
But they pay a high price for it. Chronic hunger leads to increased aggressive behaviour and even cannibalism. This practice contradicts European and different national laws, which are supposed to guarantee adequate nutrition for all livestock. However, in many national regulations, the parent stock animals are neglected, as not mentioned or regulated, hardly are they under control of competent authorities or receive compulsory improvement orders.
Breeding and keeping (7,8)
In the 1950s, it took a chicken 100 days to weigh in at its slaughter weight of 1.8 kilograms. Today, a 'top-class' broiler chicken reaches this weight in just around 30 days – that is, in a third of the time. The reason: Since the 1960s, broilers have been bred specifically for the performance characteristic 'rapid weight gain'. It has long been known that this has harmful effects on animals. These breeding problems are exacerbated by the miserable housing conditions.2
- Metabolic diseases: ascites and cardiac death are a direct result of turbo breeding.
- Mobility restrictions: The rapid growth leads to weak legs and lameness.
- Skin diseases: Persistent sitting and the poor quality of the bedding cause breast blisters, skin burns and paw diseases.
- Infections: Skin diseases are entry points for bacteria.
The EU minimum standards are even further removed from anything close to animal-friendly regulation. The directive passed by the EU Council of Ministers for Agriculture and Fisheries since May 2007 allows a stocking density of 42 kilograms per square meter. With the frequently practiced short-term fattening for the production of grilled chickens, up to 28 animals can be kept on one square meter.
Steps to avoid the most serious animal welfare problems due to one-sided turbo breeding are completely excluded from the EU directive. It also remains completely unclear how compliance with EU regulations is to be monitored.
Together with other animal welfare organisations, FOUR PAWS criticised the most important deficiencies in the draft guideline and suggested possible solutions. These too went unnoticed. For example, serious animal welfare problems are legally legitimized by EU standards for broilers.
FOUR PAWS calls for...
…the end of cruel practices:
- Ban on the painful mutilation procedures:
- A general ban on beak trimming. Beak trimming is a mutilation which adapts the animal to the keeping conditions instead of adapting the keeping conditions to the animals. No beak trimming of any kind should be allowed.
- A general ban on mutilations such as toe clipping, dubbing, or pinioning. Housing conditions should be adapted to the animal, providing them with more space and prevent injuries.9
- Castration of young male roosters for capons is a cruel practice, done without anaesthesia and the production of capons should be banned completely in all countries, otherwise it crates loopholes where farmers can import castrated animals from countries where it is allowed.
- The use of slow growing breeds or limitation of the average daily weight gain
- Maximum stocking density in the stalls: 11 kilograms per square metre.10
- Elevated areas and perches for appropriate resting.
- Outside air conditioning area adjacent to the stable (winter garden).
- If possible: free range husbandry is always the best in terms of animals’ welfare.
- Reduce, refine and replace animal products in your diet. Find out more about the 3R's here.
- If you absolutely must buy chicken meat, only buy organic or chicken with an animal welfare label.
- Look out for chicken in processed foods.
- Ask the restaurant about the keeping conditions of the broiler chickens when ordering a dish with chicken meat.
- Support the animal welfare work of FOUR PAWS with a donation.
As egg and poultry consumption is increasing worldwide, it is more important than ever to improve animal husbandry conditions in the current situation. By reducing the consumption of animal products, or even by completely avoiding it, you as a consumer actively contribute to bringing about a rethink in the industry. You can find more information under animal welfare and nutrition.
2. National Chicken Council | U.S. Broiler Performance. National Chicken Council. [accessed 2023 Jul 20]. https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/u-s-broiler-performance/
3. Allen VM, Weaver H, Ridley AM, Harris JA, Sharma M, Emery J, Sparks N, Lewis M, Edge S. Sources and Spread of Thermophilic Campylobacter spp. during Partial Depopulation of Broiler Chicken Flocks. Journal of Food Protection. 2008;71(2):264–270. doi:10.4315/0362-028X-71.2.264
4. EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. Scientific Opinion on the influence of genetic parameters on the welfare and the resistance to stress of commercial broilers. EFSA Journal. 2010;8(7):1666. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1666
5. Sandilands V, Hocking PM, editors. Alternative systems for poultry: health, welfare and productivity. Wallingford, Oxfordshire, UK ; Cambridge, MA: CABI; 2012. (Poultry science symposium series).
6. EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. Scientific Opinion on welfare aspects of the management and housing of the grand-parent and parent stocks raised and kept for breeding purposes. EFSA Journal. 2010;8(7):1667. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1667
7. de Jong I, Berg C, Butterworth A, Estevéz I. Scientific report updating the EFSA opinions on the welfare of broilers and broiler breeders. EFSA Supporting Publications. 2012 [accessed 2023 Jul 20];9(6). https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2903/sp.efsa.2012.EN-295. doi:10.2903/sp.efsa.2012.EN-295
8. Knowles TG, Kestin SC, Haslam SM, Brown SN, Green LE, Butterworth A, Pope SJ, Pfeiffer D, Nicol CJ. Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, Risk Factors and Prevention Callaerts P, editor. PLoS ONE. 2008;3(2):e1545. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001545
9. van Niekerk TGCM, Jong I. Mutilations in poultry European poultry production systems. Lohmann Information 42 (2007) 1. 2007 Jan 1.
10. EFSA AHAW Panel (EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare), Nielsen SS, Alvarez J, Bicout DJ, Calistri P, Canali E, Drewe JA, Garin-Bastuji B, Gonzales Rojas JL, Schmidt CG, et al. Welfare of broilers on farm. EFSA Journal. 2023;21(2):e07788. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2023.7788