Why has the ASPCA chosen to put a major focus on chickens?
Nearly all of the over 9 billion farm animals slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. are “broiler” chickens: chickens raised for their meat, rather than their eggs. Almost all of those chickens are raised on industrial farms and suffer horrifically due to selective breeding for fast growth and high breast meat production. In 1923, it took 16 weeks to raise a chicken. Today it takes six weeks. As the University of Arkansas noted, if humans grew at a similar rate, a 6.6 lb newborn baby would weigh 660 lbs after two months.
At this time, the ASPCA is the only large-scale U.S. animal protection group working specifically to improve the lives of chickens raised for meat, and as the country’s oldest animal-protection organization with a dedicated and diverse membership, the ASPCA hopes to drive widespread change in this industry that affects so many animals’ lives.
Are there laws or government agencies preventing the abuse of chickens on industrial farms?
There are almost no legal on-farm protections for animals. The three federal laws that govern how farm animals are treated do things like limit transportation times, require that animals be stunned before slaughter, and prevent cows who are too sick to stand up at the slaughterhouse from entering the food supply−but all three of these laws exclude birds. While USDA inspectors oversee federal slaughterhouses, neither the USDA nor the FDA is required to send inspectors to farms.
Can fast-growing chickens negatively impact human health?
The fast growth rates and conditions in which most factory-farmed chickens currently live cause animal suffering and potentially contribute to increased food safety risks. Unfortunately, the kinds of illnesses that can be carried by chickens and affect humans who eat them are not generally apparent on the chickens themselves, and therefore those birds may not get removed from the food chain. In its Risky Meat report, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that between 1998 and 2010 chicken caused more outbreaks and illnesses than any other meat in the American food supply. A 2010 Consumer Reports analysis of fresh, whole chicken bought at stores nationwide found that two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. Much of the bacteria found on chicken was antibiotic-resistant, a result of the industry’s practice of routinely feeding chickens antibiotics to make up for their compromised immunity due to unnatural growth rates and cramped, unsanitary conditions.
The improvements sought by the ASPCA will lead to healthier birds and potentially healthier consumers. Chickens with slower growth rates who are raised in better conditions could be less likely to require the use of antibiotics to survive and, due to lower stress, are more resistant to infectious diseases.
What is the ASPCA asking of chicken producers, retailers, restaurants and consumers?
The ASPCA is urging the U.S. chicken industry, food retailers and consumers to move away from the ultra-fast-growing chickens that make up most of the nearly 9 billion meat chickens slaughtered each year in this country and turn to slower-growing breeds. When raised correctly in higher-welfare conditions like those we recommend, slower-growing breeds may also pose fewer health risks to people. Consumers can drive these changes by demanding higher-welfare chicken from companies and the stores where they shop.
Will these slower-growing chickens cost more?
They might, but we are heartened by consumer polls that show that Americans highly value animal welfare and food safety and are willing to pay more for ethically produced products. The popularity of cage-free eggs is an example of consumers’ willingness to pay more for a product they believe is better for animals. A national survey by Lake Research Partners and commissioned by the ASPCA revealed that seven in 10 consumers are willing to spend more money for higher-welfare chicken.
Improving the welfare of chickens raised for meat will require some investment by the industry into better breeds and better environments that promote the birds’ well-being. It is unclear how much of that cost would be passed on to consumers, but as supply grows due to increased demand, those costs should come down.
What is the difference between “organic,” “pasture-raised,” “free range” and the reforms the ASPCA is advocating for?
The vast majority of the nearly 9 billion chickens raised for meat each year in this country, including many that are labeled organic or free range, are fast-growing birds who suffer from unnaturally fast and often debilitating growth. The ASPCA is working to address this inherent genetic problem across the board, among both industrially raised chickens and those raised in higher welfare conditions.
The ASPCA recognizes that there is a spectrum of animal welfare. Chickens who are raised without routine administration of antibiotics, with access to pasture and room to roam outdoors are in higher welfare conditions than chickens who are routinely administered antibiotics in high-density, indoor, artificially lit facilities. However, the reality is that labels do not always describe the conditions consumers expect. For example, if producers do the bare minimum, chickens raised to organic standards may have only marginally better welfare than industrially raised chickens. To qualify as “free range,” chickens need only have access to the outdoors for an unspecified amount of time, and sometimes the space they are granted or the doors that provide access are too small for all the chickens to fit. We recommend that consumers who eat meat educate themselves on the animal welfare practices related to each label and farm.
Are there any “broiler” chickens that currently meet the ASPCA’s recommendations?
There are farms that are independently certified according to published animal welfare standards with regular on-farm audits. Animal Welfare Approved meets the ASPCA’s recommendations. Certified Humane and GAP level 2 chickens are raised in conditions significantly better than those within the conventional industrial model but do not require farmers to raise slower growing breeds as recommended by the ASPCA. Further, a small number of farmers, certified and uncertified, are choosing to raise slower growing birds in better conditions. Visit our farmer testimonials page to meet some of those farmers and hear why they made that choice.
What can I do to help?
The ASPCA needs members, advocates and consumers to get involved! You can stay updated, keep track of the campaign’s progress and take action to help chickens by visiting TruthAboutChicken.org and by spreading the Truth About Chicken to friends. You can also contact your local supermarket to demand higher welfare, slower-growing chicken.