Studies show that consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from. In 2018, a survey by Ketchum found that Americans ranked animal welfare alongside children’s hunger and education as causes they were most likely to support1. Specific to chicken, approximately three-quarters of respondents to a 2018 survey conducted for the National Chicken Council said they were concerned about how chickens are raised for meat2.
Consumer preferences for higher welfare meat also translates to their purchasing decisions—from restaurants to supermarkets. Mintel reported that while total sales of poultry were down in 2016, the brands performing well were those with ethical claims3. Mintel also found that customers are willing to pay at least a dollar more for a “more ethical poultry product,” as compared to conventionally raised chicken.
In 2018, white chicken breast made up 59.7% of dollar sales of all chicken products in the United States4. It is the strong consumer demand for white meat that drove the broiler industry to breed a chicken that would grow as quickly, and as large, as possible to deliver as much white meat as possible.
This accelerated growth for high yield has resulted in product quality issues affecting the chicken market—namely the widespread issues of muscular myopathies such as woody breast and white striping. Woody breast causes the meat to be tough and difficult to chew, while white striping is a visible condition in which fat and collagen congeal in white stripes across the outside of chicken breasts. These abnormalities are strongly linked to accelerated weight gain and rapid breast muscle growth in the most popular broiler breeds.
The introduction of higher-welfare breeds could significantly reduce meat quality abnormalities.
Over 99 percent of chickens in the United States are raised in conditions in which the following factors contribute to serious health and welfare issues:
The modern chicken has been selectively bred and commercialized over many decades, prioritizing fast growth and large breast muscles over any consideration for welfare. Chickens now grow so big, so quickly, their bodies can’t keep up. Their legs can’t cope with the weight of their upper bodies5, so they suffer from leg pain and lameness. Their hearts and other organs are under pressure, and many die prematurely from heart disease.
Numerous studies have linked the problems of movement and ammonia burns to stocking density6. When chickens are crammed so tightly together, the litter becomes soiled more quickly, and mobility is decreased because birds have inadequate room to move.
As standard industry practice, chickens are forced to live in a completely barren environment with wet, dirty litter. They are subjected to near-constant, low-intensity artificial lighting with short periods of continuous darkness and virtually no stimulating resources. Farms rarely change the litter between flocks of chickens, which means birds must sit in their own waste for their entire lives. This constant contact with the ammonia-laden litter causes foot pad dermatitis (lesions on the bottom of their feet), breast blisters, and hock burns (ammonia burns through the skin). These conditions all result in extremely poor welfare.
The most prevalent slaughter method in the United States poultry industry is live-shackling, a system by which birds are hung upside down by their feet in metal shackles7. An electrified water bath is meant to give them a shock that renders them unconscious; however, many are not effectively stunned and continue in the process while conscious. Some may then still be conscious at the point of having their throats cut, and a small but not insignificant percentage are alive long enough to experience the boiling water that is used to remove their feathers.
For more information on these animal welfare concerns, please see the US Broiler Chicken Welfare White Paper.