FarmFacts: CHICKENS REARED FOR MEAT (BROILER CHICKENS)
What does Compassion in World Farming - Ireland want?
We would like to see Irish broiler chickens kept free-range or organic, with access during the daytime to outdoors.
If birds are kept indoors all the time, then the standards for indoor rearing
systems should be high, with birds given plenty of space and a good environment. Only slower-growing varieties of
chickens should be used.
Broiler chickens (or broilers) are the chickens reared for the meat we call 'chicken'.
About 68 million broiler chickens are slaughtered each year in the Republic of Ireland for their meat. The vast
majority have been reared intensively on factory farms (see photo, left).
Factory farmed broiler chickens live in crowded sheds,
usually without windows or natural light. They do not have access to outdoors. The birds are not in cages, and as they grow to slaughter weight, they
virtually fill the floor of the shed. The welfare problems for intensively-reared broiler
chickens are described below.
What does 'free-range' and 'organic' mean?
Free-range chickens have access to outdoors whilst also having suitable shelter which they can go into to protect them
from the weather and keep them safe at night. If the birds are 'organic' then, in addition to having access to outdoors,
they are also fed on a natural diet and certain organic standards are kept. Well-designed and managed free-range or
organic systems are a kinder way to rear broiler chickens. (See photo, right.)
What are the problems for factory farmed broiler chickens?
Standard broiler chickens reared for their meat have been selectively bred to grow incredibly fast, and now reach
slaughter weight at about 6 weeks old. Broiler chickens now reach slaughter
age twice as quickly as they did 30 years ago. But this fast growth leaves the birds vulnerable to painful leg problems and
The muscle (which becomes the meat that is eaten) grows very quickly but the development of
the bird's legs and skeleton does not keep pace with the rest of the body. Therefore the legs
have to support a great weight. As a result of this fast growth, broiler chickens can suffer from painful, sometimes
crippling, leg disorders.
Compassion in World Farming believes that birds reared and slaughtered to produce chicken meat should not be a variety of bird that grows so quickly that they
suffer from painful leg and heart disorders as a result. Slower-growing varieties should be used to avoid these problems.
Factory farmed broiler chickens live in crowded sheds, usually without windows or natural light. It is normal for
a shed to contain 10,000 to 30,000 birds. The chickens are not kept in cages; they are reared on the floor,
which is covered in a deep layer of 'litter', e.g. wood shavings. Conditions become very cramped as the birds
grow, as shown in the photo (right) of Irish broiler chickens on an intensive farm.
Due to leg weakness, many birds spend a long time sitting on the floor. The litter, which is not changed during
the rearing of each batch of birds, becomes increasingly soiled with manure. Lengthy contact with this soiled litter can cause blisters to develop on the
birds' breasts, ulcers on their feet and burns on their legs. These can all be very painful.
How are chickens cared for in large intensive units ?
It is impossible for so many birds to receive individual care. The birds are fed and given
water automatically by machines. The person in charge maintains the equipment and checks on the general health of the
birds, and removes those that die or are to be culled (killed) e.g. because of health problems or injuries.
When are broiler chickens slaughtered?
Most intensively-reared chickens are killed at about 6 weeks old.
Free-range chickens are killed at around 8 weeks, and organic chickens at about 12 weeks.
How are chickens from large units slaughtered?
Once the birds reach slaughter weight, they are caught up and transferred to crates in the back of lorries. Usually,
a person acts as a 'catcher', picking up several birds by the legs. Chickens may suffer bruising and broken wings
and legs during this process, and a small number of birds may die on the way to the slaughterhouse from injuries,
suffocation or shock.
At the slaughterhouse, the chickens are taken from the crates and hung upside down on a conveyor belt. They pass through an electrically charged
water bath which stuns the birds (i.e. makes them unconscious). Their necks are cut by means of an automatic neck cutter (with
an operator available as back-up).
An EU Directive, laying down minimum standards for the production of chickens reared for meat, came into force in
July 2010 in all EU Member States, including Ireland. The Directive is weak, but at least for the first time we
have species-specific legislation for the five billion chickens reared each year in the EU. As a first step it
is useful, but we are determined to build on it.
We do not believe that the standards laid down in the Directive go far enough. For example, the Directive
permits chickens in indoor systems to be stocked to a density of 39 kg per square metre, which is about 18 birds
per square metre of floor space. Compassion in World Farming is of the view that this permits overcrowding to continue and
fails to give birds adequate space. We are also disapointed that the Directive does not tackle the problems caused by the
use of fast-growing birds that are prone to painful leg and heart problems.
What you can do to help improve the lives of Irish chickens
Encourage your family and friends to buy 'free-range' or 'organic' chicken as this is produced from broiler chickens
that have access to outdoors. Though it may cost more to shop in a compassionate way, you will know that the
chicken you are eating was reared more humanely.
Some Farmers Markets in the Republic of Ireland sell locally-produced free-range or organic chicken. This is a great
way to support local producers and encourage welfare-friendly chicken. And you can often talk to the farmer at the
stand about how his or her chickens are reared, or see them for yourself if the farm is nearby.
Compassion in World Farming will do all it can to ensure that the standards for broiler chickens laid down in the
EU Directive are improved. We will continue to encourage consumers to buy chicken which was produced in a welfare-friendly
way,preferably where the birds were reared on a free-range or organic farm.
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