With veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying chickens now well on the path toward cage-free futures, what's the next big animal welfare issue for the food supply?
Today's broiler chickens are genetically-manipulated to grow too fat, too fast. Billions each year suffer painful leg injuries—a result of the rapid speed at which their unnaturally top-heavy bodies grow, placing enormous pressure on their legs. And because the birds' organs can't keep up with their bodies, the leading causes of on-farm mortality are heart attacks and lung failure, even at just several weeks old—something unheard of outside the poultry sector.
The solution? Many companies—like Nestle, Aramark, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Bon Appetit Management, Compass Group and more—are demanding slower growing birds from their suppliers. And numerous breeds of slower-growing birds are now commercially available from all the leading poultry suppliers.
Even if broiler chickens were healthy enough to move normally, they're still packed far too tightly into warehouses. This results in birds sitting in ammonia-filled waste all day, often crippled and suffering. The ammonia is so bad, birds can suffer ulcerations on the bottom of their feet and often lose all the feathers on their breasts.
The solution? The U.S. poultry industry allows 7.5 lbs (of live chicken) per one square foot of space. Animal welfare experts like the RSPCA and others recommend reducing that to 6 lbs per square foot.
Even if chickens' genetics are improved, thus enabling them to move less painfully—and if their stocking density is lowered to provide them more room—the complete lack of environmental enrichments inside the facilities where they're kept still thwarts birds from engaging in natural behaviors.
The solution? Simple, affordable additions like perches, hay bales, and natural light can correct this problem.
After the birds' brief, painful lives, they're packed onto trucks and sent to slaughter plants. There, common practice is for the birds to be dumped into piles and snapped upside down into tight-fitting leg shackles while fully conscious, causing additional suffering. They're sent through a tank of electrified water that delivers painful shocks, and then have their necks cut. The whole process is archaic and outdated.
The solution? Controlled-atmosphere slaughter systems offer modern improvements. These systems—used to slaughter more than a quarter of all chickens (and three-quarters of turkeys) in the U.K.—are more streamlined, efficient, cleaner and far more humane.
"The U.S. chicken industry has spent decades figuring out how to grow its birds fast. Now, some of its customers are looking for producers willing to slow things down."