This week saw the launch of the RSPCA’s new report on the health and welfare implications for fast growing breeds of meat chickens: Eat. Sit. Suffer. Repeat. These chickens produce the majority of the chicken meat consumed worldwide.

The report reveals the suffering endured by fast-growing meat chickens, many of whom struggle to perch or even walk properly by the end of their short lives. The independent research, which was commissioned by the RSPCA (and generously funded by the Farm Animal Welfare Forum) revealed that breeding programmes have seriously impacted the health and welfare of these fast-growing birds.

The results of the study, which was carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), showed that, compared with the slower growing breed (JA757), the fast-growing breeds (Ross 308, Cobb 500 and Hubbard Flex):

● were up to twice as likely to die or be culled primarily due to ill health (up to 11%)

● 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

● were up to 3.5 times more likely to suffer from moderate to severe lameness and require culling

● were more likely to spend their time sitting (around 72% of the time) compared to slower-growing birds (51%)*

● spent 6.6 times less time perching (daily average up to 1.2%, compared with the slower growing breed which spent 11% of their time perching)*.

● Spent 1.5 times more time feeding*, due to the energy they need to grow at an accelerated rate

In terms of meat quality, 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 conditions known as wooden breast (where muscle cells have died)

Switching to a slower growing, higher welfare breed, is one of the most significant steps that can be taken to improve the health and welfare of meat chickens. Not only does it have a positive impact on welfare, it also results in less waste. As demonstrated by the trial, the production of chicken meat using conventional meat chicken breeds is a wasteful and ethically questionable business as the higher mortality, higher culls, and poorer meat quality brings into question the sustainability of this enterprise.

It’s really positive that a number of food service businesses, such as Ask, Zizzi’s and Wahaca, have already committed to making the switch, by signing up to the European Chicken Commitment. We hope that as more research such as this comes to light, more food businesses will have the confidence to make the Commitment too.

*at 37days of age.