Broiler chickens: the grim reality behind supermarket shelves


Katherine Wright

In our ongoing series on addressing climate change, Katherine Wright discusses the hidden horrors of chicken farming

In the poultry industry, the term “broiler” refers to chickens who are reared specifically for their meat. Broiler chickens are by far the most farmed land animal in the UK, and as consumers we are faced with an enormous range of choice when walking through the supermarket aisles. From raw fillets to ready meals containing pre-cooked slices, the scale of the industry and lack of clear information on packaging means it is often very difficult to trace where our chicken is sourced from, and the conditions in which the birds themselves are reared. Indeed, most of us are unaware that of the one billion broilers slaughtered in the UK every year (more than the whole of Europe’s population) over ninety five percent are intensively farmed, with only a very small proportion coming from free range or organic farms.

So, what sort of conditions can intensively farmed broilers expect to be reared in before they reach our local supermarkets? The first welfare standard we should examine is the stocking requirements, which determine how many chickens can be held per square metre of space. Most supermarkets allow for a stocking density of up to 38kg/m2. At the time of slaughter chickens usually weigh around 2 to 2.5 kilograms, which means there can be up to 19 chickens living alongside each other in one square metre, with each chicken having less than an A4 size sheet of paper to move around in. Needless to say, this leads to a number of severe and often life-threatening health problems. Cramped living conditions means the chickens can barely spread their wings and end up standing in their own waste for long periods of time with toxic ammonia fumes causing painful blisters to develop on their breasts and legs.

Intensive farming is also characterised by its use of fast-growing breeds. Broiler chickens today grow up to 300% faster than they did fifty years ago. This causes serious leg disorders, with many chickens becoming crippled as they struggle to support their own weight. Lameness and lack of movement means they are also at risk of dying of thirst and hunger, especially as the chicken breeds are genetically selected to feel constant hunger and to eat far more than is normal. To illustrate the impact of this growth in comparison to humans, at the time of slaughter a 5 year old child would weigh 330 pounds or 23 stone. To further compound problems of overcrowding and rapid weight gain, an absence of light and environmental enrichment means that many broiler chickens are left unable to exhibit some of their most natural behaviours, such as pecking and foraging. This not only contributes to an overall decline in their physical health, but also causes them immense mental stress and anxiety over the course of their lifespan.

With the extent of suffering in the broiler industry made clear, the next question to ask ourselves is what we as consumers can do to help create change and demand better welfare for millions of chickens in the UK. Currently, there are campaigns for major UK supermarkets to sign up to the European Chicken Commitment. This is an internationally recognised list of welfare standards which outlines a number of key requirements for improved living conditions for broiler chickens. These demands include setting a maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2, which must not be exceeded under any circumstances, and plans for environmental enrichment to allow the chickens to exhibit their natural behaviours and thus alleviate physical and mental stress. These requirements would need to be met in full by 2026, and suppliers would be subject to continual third-party auditing and annual public reporting to ensure their commitment towards achieving the demands. Full details of the European Chicken Commitment can be found here.

The suffering and neglect experienced by millions of broiler chickens in the UK is generally kept well hidden from consumers. However, once this knowledge becomes available to us it is important to recognise the actions that we can take to start changes within the industry. Open Cages is an international animal protection charity putting pressure on the UK supermarkets to sign the commitment. The charity is seeking to instigate systemic reforms for animals through corporate and legislative changes. They are currently communicating with major British retailers to stop the worst farming practices of broiler farming in the UK and other EU countries. By getting the biggest retailers on board we can start changing the way most farmers raise their chickens and, in turn, normalise these improved welfare standards. Therefore, Open Cages will soon launch the #StandWithChickens campaign, a landmark initiative that will involve holding demonstrations across five UK cities during the first week of December. Open Cages Glasgow society are also organising a demonstration in St Enoch square on Monday 3 December and will announce the target supermarket on this day.

With this corporate campaign, Open Cages aims to transform the broiler farming industry, but they will need a lot of help. If you are interested, please join the demonstrations and campaign actions in order to encourage supermarkets to stop using the worst and most abusive farming practices. Also, feel free to get in touch with Glasgow university’s Open Cages group. If you would like to come along and support us in our campaigning efforts, you can find more details of the events here:


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