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Meat chickens

Chicken is by far the most popular animal protein consumed in Australia, however chickens raised for their meat face a number of serious welfare issues.

The average Australian consumes around 50kg of chicken each year, and to meet this demand, around 700 million chickens are processed for their meat each year. This level of demand, and the intensity of production required to meet it, means that chickens raised for their meat face a number of serious welfare issues, including:

  • The rapid growth of meat chicken breeds who have been genetically selected to grow very fast, resulting in serious health and welfare issues.
  • High stocking densities indoors, potentially limiting the ability of meat chickens to easily move around and perform natural behaviours.
  • Poor quality of indoor housing, such as inadequate ventilation and lighting regimes.
  • Poor quality outdoor environments where provided, without adequate overhead cover and palatable vegetation.
  • Stress and risk of injury from euthanasia methods, catching, transport, and pre-slaughter stunning methods.

The issue

Genetics and fast growth: The skeletal, muscle and other bodily systems of fast-growing meat chicken breeds are unable to support the rapid growth for which they’ve been genetically selected. This rapid growth can lead to health and welfare issues including lower activity levels, contact dermatitis, leg disorders, increased susceptibility to stress, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic disorders.

This is a particularly important issue, because while many other problems - such as poor housing and inadequate space – can be addressed over the life of the chicken, we are limited in what we can do to mitigate the inherent welfare impacts of these genetic selection decisions.

Space allowance indoors: Higher stocking densities for older meat chickens limit their ability to easily move about and perform natural behaviours, which can increase the risk of contact dermatitis, lameness, and heat stress. The current legal maximum stocking density for meat chickens in Australia is 40kg/m2.

Indoor housing: Inadequate ventilation in sheds results in poor air quality, increasing the risk of heat stress, ammonia toxicity, and death. Artificial lighting is used to mimic daylight and dark periods, but must be appropriate (e.g. intensity, adequate dark time for rest). Poorly maintained and wet litter in a shed can increase the risk of disease and discourage natural behaviours (such as dustbathing and foraging).

Outdoor access: Free-range meat chickens are required to have access to an outdoor area with shade and shelter once they are fully feathered. Meat chickens with access to a good quality outdoor area have been shown to have improved leg health, display more natural behaviours, and show less fear, but can have higher mortality rates than meat chickens in indoor systems. The majority of meat chickens in Australia are farmed in indoor-only systems.

Euthanasia: Meat chickens may be euthanised if they’re identified as weak, sick, or injured and unlikely to recover. The most common method of euthanasia for meat chickens is manual cervical dislocation (quickly stretching the bird’s neck to dislocate the first cervical vertebrae from the skull), but this may not result in an immediate loss of consciousness and so may cause pain and distress prior to death.

Slaughter: In Australia, meat chickens are stunned prior to slaughter to ensure they are unconscious and don’t experience pain during slaughter and prior to death – this is a very important part of humane slaughter. The two main stunning methods for meat chickens are electrical waterbath stunning or controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) with carbon dioxide gas. Both have welfare risks, but electrical waterbath stunning systems have several inherent animal welfare risks, including the fact that birds need to be shackled upside down while conscious.

What needs to change

The RSPCA continues to advocate for:

  • Improvements to meat chicken genetics in Australia and encourage genetic companies to continue selecting for pro-welfare traits, as well as the uptake of higher-welfare breeds such as slower-growing breeds.
  • The legal maximum stocking density allowance for meat chickens to be reduced in Australia, and work with industry to provide meat chickens with their optimal space requirements for each type of housing system.
  • Legal minimum requirements to ensure that meat chickens are provided with adequate ventilation to maintain air quality, shed temperatures to ensure health and comfort, a lighting regime that provides adequate dark time for rest and appropriate lighting intensities and spectrum, and a litter substrate of an appropriate material and depth to encourage natural behaviours.
  • Where meat chickens have outdoor access, that the range is designed with adequate overhead cover and palatable vegetation, as well as being managed in a way that keeps meat chickens safe and mitigates possible biosecurity risks.
  • The phase out of cervical dislocation as a routine euthanasia method for meat chickens, to be replaced by more humane methods.
  • The phase out of stunning methods that require the conscious shackling of birds, such as electrical waterbath stunning, to be replaced by more humane methods.

In the meantime, the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme is about lifting the bar for animal welfare, with standards that are frequently reviewed to encourage continuous improvement. Over the past several years, through targeting specific areas such as lighting, perching, litter provision and management practices, the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme has been able to have a positive impact for the lives of meat chickens in Australia.

But while the current RSPCA Approved Standard for Meat Chickens helps address some of the welfare issues in meat chicken production, there are things that it doesn’t cover. Sometimes this is because an alternative is not yet commercially viable, sometimes it is not within the scope of the activities covered by the Standard, and sometimes it is something we are actively looking at for future reviews of the Standard.

Overall, there have been widespread improvements to the welfare of chickens raised for meat in Australia over recent years, but there is more work to be done and we will continue to work with industry, government and the public to advocate for more improvements.

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