Sentient opposes the farming and production of broiler (meat) chickens under intensive conditions and promotes fundamental changes to such management conditions as well as to the current genetic selection for excessively fast growth rates.
Significant welfare issues for broilers arise from the standard practice of selective breeding for faster growth rate and high meat yield, which currently results in birds growing to slaughter weight within 35 days. This rapid body growth rate produces not only the large breast muscles currently desired by consumers, but a range of physical and metabolic syndromes leading to limb disorders, lameness, cardiac failure, ascites, respiratory problems and sudden death syndrome. Limb disorders cause birds to suffer from chronic pain, discomfort and impaired locomotion. As a result, many birds are unable to access food and water and are at risk of dying from dehydration or starvation. Sentient therefore supports and promotes farm assurance schemes whereby more robust and slower growing strains are selected, with low frequency of leg disorders, resistance to pathogens, and growth rates of no faster than 45g per day on average.
Sentient also supports management measures that better promote the welfare of broiler chickens. Sentient opposes intensive farming where birds are housed in sheds with high stocking densities of up to 60,000 per shed (20 birds per square metre) and no access to the outdoors. High stocking densities are incompatible with good welfare because they do not allow birds sufficient freedom of movement, unhindered access to food and water, or the ability to engage in natural behaviours such as perching, dust bathing, or wing flapping. They also reduce welfare indirectly by exposing birds to poor litter quality, high ammonia levels and the risk of heat stress. As well as promoting amplification of infectious agents, high stocking densities predispose birds to a range of pathologies, including breast blisters, chronic dermatitis and leg disorders, and these are worse at densities above 24 kg per square metre.
Sentient acknowledges that the majority of chickens raised in the broiler industry are housed in barn systems, and that a range of improvements are required to improve their welfare.
A maximum standard for broiler density must be set and adhered to. The current standard in Australia of 30 kg (14 birds) per square metre is unacceptably high. To improve the conditions of birds housed in barn systems, Sentient therefore argues for the lowest stocking densities possible, and certainly below 24kg per square metre. Incentives should arise from evidence that lower stocking densities increase growth rate, produce superior meat quality and reduce the incidence of foot pad dermatitis. Birds must also be provided with clean, dry litter. Prolonged contact with wet litter causes lameness and pain due to dermatitis on the breast, hocks and feet.
The practice of long photoperiod must be eliminated. Traditionally, broilers have been reared in conditions of near continuous light (23 hours per day) to maximise food intake and daily weight gain. Recent evidence demonstrates that increasing light intensity reduces the range of behaviours and the amount of time birds spend feeding. Improvements can be made to their welfare by exposing them to a maximum of 16-17 hours of light per day.
The use of severely feed restricted diets for broiler breeders (to allow them to live for up to one year) must be banned because it leads to chronic hunger, frustration and distress.
Shed systems must allow some access to natural light and provide elevated perches with sufficient space for all birds to perch simultaneously. They must also include enrichments, such as straw bales, dust baths, raised platforms, scattered grains or forages, to encourage natural behaviours such as dust bathing, foraging and pecking.
Ideally, Sentient promotes free range farming of broilers, with birds kept in small communities of up to 30 birds to facilitate the formation of social groups and the opportunity to engage in natural behaviours, such as roosting, nurturing young, dust bathing, preening, foraging, flapping and other locomotor activities. Free-range farming must be well-run, with not only low stocking densities but also appropriate environmental protection. Birds must be provided with continuous access to the outdoors during daylight hours, with a minimum of eight hours per day, except in circumstances of adverse weather conditions or extreme disease outbreaks. Outside environments must shelter the birds from predation and weather extremes, and thus require suitable fencing and the provision of wind breaks, shade and foliage. Foliage is particularly crucial and should preferably include lower-lying dense tree coverage, because this helps to mimic their natural forest environment, provides protection and has been shown to increase their range. Free range birds must also have continuous access to suitable indoor housing that provides natural light, appropriate litter, perches and some form of environmental enrichment.
All production systems must be regularly audited by independent assessors without notice. Similarly, the setting of minimum standards must be under government jurisdiction, being developed via consultation and engagement with stakeholders. This is essential to circumvent the risk that market forces may result in ongoing overcrowding of birds. Standards should be legally enforceable and consistent under state and territory legislation. Higher standards should be revered in industry bodies. Classification, approval and monitoring of various systems should be conducted by independent assessors and auditors, in order to avoid current consumer confusion and industry misrepresentation. Meat packaging should be clearly and correctly labelled as to the type of production system (free range or barn systems), with fines imposed for mislabelling. The adoption of a standardised labelling system, as is being considered in the EU, would allow consumers to identify the standard of production they are supporting by their choices.
Sentient supports continued independent research and the development of alternative housing systems for broilers under Australian conditions. Such research should employ comprehensive and holistic indicators of animal welfare, including mortality rates, physiological and disease measurements, behavioural parameters and productivity. Policy and management decisions should not be exclusively based on studies using sole indicators (such as cortisol levels) or studies that are solely funded by industry.