Broiler chicken production welfare standards adopted in 2013 specifically address broiler production system criteria and measurables. The animal welfare guidelines are the first chapter dealing with poultry production to be approved by the International Office of Animal Health (OIE).

The role of the poultry sector in the implementation of the OIE Animal Welfare Standards was examined by Vincent Guyonnet, scientific adviser the International Egg Commission, member of the OIE Animal Welfare Working Group, at the WATT Animal Welfare Conference, who spoke on behalf of the poultry sector about work done to support the implementation of the OIE Animal Welfare standards.

Currently, 180 countries are members of the OIE and, since 2001, it has been mandated by its members to develop global recommendations on animal welfare. The work is guided by a permanent working group – with representation from academia, government and the private sector – and also by technical groups of experts appointed to address specific technical and scientific issues.

The poultry industry has engaged in a variety of activities in support of and contributing to the implementation of the OIE animal welfare standards, and these can be grouped into four broad categories:

  • Training;
  • Setting industry guidelines and codes of practice;
  • Development of internal evaluation processes, and
  • Validation and feedback on the OIE Animal Welfare standards.

Training poultry handlers in animal welfare

Training is key in the proper implementation of animal welfare standards, explained Guyonnet.  He continued with the example of poultry transportation, which is stressful and can severely affect welfare if birds are not fit for the journey being considered.

Training personnel in charge of gathering and loading chickens is, consequently, critical, but any training can only be effective if it provides the right information in the right way - appropriate to its target audience.

An example of a training program addressing transport by land is Should this bird be loaded? This Canadian initiative was developed in 2011, with the various poultry sectors – broiler, layer, turkey and breeding bird producers – joining with academia and government bodies for the project. Their goal was to develop a simple, highly graphic booklet, with information relevant to workers involved in bird catching. 

While the development of training materials is important, the means of delivery also is critical to successful implementation of new procedures and standards.

Guyonnet gave the example of a training day in Canada where workers and bird catchers were given a presentation stressing the key issues, such as the correct way to carry birds and how crate densities need to be adjusted to take weather conditions into account.

Each participant was given a remote control with voting options. After the lecture, the instructor reviewed a number of situations and offered options for the next steps to guarantee bird welfare. Once attendees had voted using their remote controls, results were tabulated and could be immediately seen by all involved, allowing a quick assessment to be made of whether the lecture’s key points had been understood.

Training is also highly important to ensure poultry welfare during air transport. The Association of the European Poultry Breeders, for example, has partnered with key European airlines to develop a Guide to good air transport of hatching eggs and day-old chicks.

It covers areas such as preparation of hatching eggs and day-old chicks for transport, holding, loading onto planes, flight delays, unloading and holding – all critical to ensuring animal welfare.

 Poultry welfare guidelines, codes of practice

After training, setting guidelines and codes of practice is an important step in implementing OIE animal welfare standards, he said, offering some concrete examples.

Although the animal welfare chapter on broiler production systems was approved only last year, many private sector organizations have already developed their own standards.

For example, in 2008 the Australian Chicken Meat Federation released its manual for meat chicken farming - part of a series of manuals addressing national welfare standards for the chicken meat industry.

The document clearly outlines six principal standards that contribute to broiler welfare. These standards, compliant with the OIE standards, emphasize concrete examples to facilitate on-farm implementation, and were developed through collaboration between a wide range of stakeholders.

Animal welfare enforcement, monitoring

Setting standards, however, is only the first step, as without proper enforcement and monitoring, they will quickly become irrelevant. In some areas, such as slaughter, for example, enforcement may be under the supervision of national veterinary services, while in others, private sector organizations have developed processes to monitor compliance. These processes are either self-audits, audits performed by major customers or, alternatively, audits conducted by third-party, independent organizations.

With regard to slaughter, in 1999 the U.S. National Chicken Council developed standards titled Animal welfare guidelines and audit checklist for broilers. The document was drawn up through a broad consultation process and is reviewed every two years by an independent scientific panel.

It identifies 15 main standards, and for each of these outlines concrete, detailed performance indicators. The standards come with a thorough audit checklist, allowing each processing plant to measure performance.

Each item within these standards is audited, and the target or measurable outcomes clearly detailed. Procedures to monitor animal welfare indicators, such as the effectiveness of stunning, bleeding and measuring the incidence of broken wings and leg injuries are also given, so ensuring that the same methods are used by all workers in all plants.

Poultry sector validation, feedback

The members of the poultry sector organization are farmers, producers and processors, and they are at the interface between the OIE animal welfare standards and birds on a daily basis.

This contact offers valuable information in terms of implementation, the application of standards in field conditions, and compliance levels. Day-to-day involvement with birds on farm, during transport or at processing offers very practical, first-hand experience, and this expertise can then be shared with the different ad hoc groups that have been established by the OIE during the drafting of the chapters on welfare.

Poultry organizations also provide feedback on the current chapters, either via representatives in the OIE Animal Welfare Working Group or through local organizations and the national central veterinary offices.

Future poultry welfare directions

Private sector organizations will continue to play a very proactive role in animal welfare.

For example, in the absence of any national regulations or OIE standards for laying hens, the United Egg Producers (UEP) in the USA has partnered with leading academics to develop husbandry guidelines and a welfare reference document for its members.

In addition, it has set up a thorough auditing process to ensure compliance. Third-party verification will ensure that regulators, buyers and consumers are able to trust the system in place. Regular audits and performance reviews offer egg producers the chance to work with auditors to identify areas for program improvements.

Transparency of results and full accountability are extremely important, as they guarantee the trust demanded by regulators and consumers alike, and therefore ensure sustainability.

An example of how this is working in practice is the U.K. poultry sector – comprising broiler, egg, turkey, game and non-commercial poultry producers – which drew up, in consultation with veterinarians and the government, a program for improving poultry health and welfare. The draft document was posted on the Internet for comments from all interested parties, providing clear visibility for the issues and areas identified for improvement, and the proposed solution.

Continuing animal welfare research

Sector organizations also play a critical role in animal welfare research. For instance, Egg Farmers of Canada, which represents more than 1,100 egg farmers, sponsors a Chair in Poultry Welfare at the Campbell Centre of the Study of Animal Welfare, one of the world’s leading animal research centers.

In the U.S., several stakeholders, including the U.S. and Canadian egg farmers’ associations, individual egg producers, animal scientists, research institutes, non-governmental organizations, food manufacturers and restaurant chains, joined forces in 2011 to build a vast three-year research program, designed to study, in a commercial setting, three different laying hen production systems.

This type of collaboration is critical to ensure that the best possible data is generated to allow the best, science-based decisions to be made for egg production and housing systems. The study of bird welfare under normal, commercial conditions is essential to ensure that recommendations and standards do, indeed, benefit the animals and the workers caring for them.

The poultry sector has a duty to share best practices, and it has been gratifying to recommend members with specific field experience to contribute to ad hoc OIE groups, and the industry will continue to do so for future OIE animal welfare chapters, Guyonnet said.

The industry has also developed a large volume of training materials, tools and auditing schemes which are critical to the implementation of OIE standards. But there is still more to be done, and the poultry industry is actively working with the OIE to define the best ways to facilitate the implementation of animal welfare in all countries.