The poultry industry reacts to landmark welfare report

A newly released animal welfare report may lead to further pressure on the broiler industry and breeding companies to adopt some degree of slower-growing broiler genetics.

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A new study comparing the welfare outcomes of different breeds of broiler chickens concluded fast growth rate coupled with high breast yield is associated with poor welfare outcomes. | (Courtesy Billy Hufford)
A new study comparing the welfare outcomes of different breeds of broiler chickens concluded fast growth rate coupled with high breast yield is associated with poor welfare outcomes. | (Courtesy Billy Hufford)

A newly released animal welfare report may lead to further pressure on the broiler industry and breeding companies to adopt some degree of slower-growing broiler genetics.

In September 2020, a summary of a study – “In Pursuit of a Better Broiler: A Comprehensive Study on 16 Strains of Broiler Chickens Differing in Growth Rates” –  conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph comparing the welfare outcomes of different breeds of broiler chickens was published. The research, funded largely by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), concluded fast growth rate coupled with high breast yield is associated with poor welfare outcomes.

The study’s methodologies and findings

The study was conducted over two years with more than 7,500 broiler chickens from 16 different genetic strains. It compared behavior, mobility, anatomy, physiology, mortality, feed efficiency and carcass and meat quality as they related to the strain’s growth rates.

“In comparison to strains with slower growth rates and lighter breast yields, strains with faster growth rates and higher breast yields had lower activity levels, poorer indicators of mobility, poorer foot and hock health, higher biochemical markers of muscle damage, higher rates of muscle myopathies, and potentially inadequate organ development,” the research’s summary said.

More of the report will be published, and the research data will be made publicly available, in the coming months. All the projects’ methodologies, findings and analysis should be published by the middle of 2021.

Dr. Tina Widowski, an animal biosciences professor at the University of Guelph and a leader of the study, said her research shows that the bird’s body conformation has changed significantly in terms of rate of growth and breast yield due to past genetic selection. She said she wants the broiler industry to think about what that selection’s implications are for the biological function and the welfare of the bird.

Dr. Stephanie Torrey, University of Guelph, a leading researcher on the project poses in a test pen. | (Midian Nascimento dos Santos)

Widowski said her hope is that the study will add new information about welfare and health and insert new welfare parameters into the conversation surrounding the poultry industry and the breeds it uses. She credited the industry for identifying and addressing issues with skeletal leg muscle problems and heart failure in the past. In the research, few birds displayed skeletal or heart issues.

GAP’s role in the study

GAP played a large role in getting the study off the ground. Widowski said the organization approached Guelph about conducting it. GAP is an Austin, Texas-based, third-party welfare standards organization closely linked to Whole Foods Market.

It was founded in 2008 by Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey. All meat sold at the high-end grocer must be certified by GAP. It uses tiered standards for animal husbandry. The lowest rung, Step 1, requires what it calls no crates, no cages and no crowding. The highest, Step 5+, calls for pasture raised animals who are born and slaughtered on the same farm.

In March 2016, GAP announced its intent to require 100% slower-growing chicken breeds by January 1, 2024. In its current iteration, GAP’s chicken standards say the organization plans on transitioning all birds to enhanced welfare genetics by 2024.

How GAP will use the research findings

With the study finished, GAP is planning on adjusting its broiler welfare standards soon. The organization’s goal is to use the research findings to identify multi-disciplinary factors that could objectively support change within its existing standards program.

Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for GAP, said – with the assistance of what it calls a multi-stakeholder technical working group – it will write a new broiler chicken assessment protocol it will use to determine which breeds are eligible for the GAP program.

A test pen included enrichments like a raised platform at the back, a hanging scale, a stone to peck at and a hanging rope. | (Courtesy Stephanie Torrey)

“GAP will name the first list of approved breeds upon completion of the broiler assessment protocol. Both the protocol and list of breeds will be approved by the GAP Board of Directors prior to publication,” Letton said. “Our goal is to publish our assessment protocol by the end of the year.”

Potential wider impacts for the broiler industry

GAP’s animal welfare standards are spreading beyond foods sold at Whole Foods, too. According to industry research conducted by Dr. Greg Rennier in his WATT/Rennier Poultry Confidence, about 70% of poultry industry professionals polled in August 2019 said their customers are currently using GAP standards or are planning on adopting GAP.

Currently, Allen Harim Foods, Farmers Pride Inc., better known as Bell & Evans, FreeBird, Hormel Foods Corp.’s Applegate Farms brand, Jamaica Broilers/The Best Dressed Chicken, Miller Poultry, Pitman Family Farms, Perdue Foods, Shenandoah Valley Organic LLC and Wayne Farms LLC are all listed as GAP Chicken Partners.

NCC asks for more information

The National Chicken Council (NCC) – a Washington-based trade group serving the industry – said wholesale changes based on the results of a summary of “one, abbreviated and non-peer reviewed study is imprudent.”

Tom Super, a spokesman for the NCC, said neither the organization, the chicken industry nor its customers can or should draw any real conclusions without having seen the full body of research.

“The Guelph study … could be a valuable addition to the current knowledge on broiler welfare. However, we have not yet had access to the full report, which we have repeatedly requested from the research team and GAP,” Super said. “NCC has serious concerns about the negative conclusions being drawn by animal activist groups that seem to misrepresent this study’s data.”

The NCC, without seeing the full results of the study, also questioned the applicability of the trials conducted in research pens with solid sidewalls to real world, commercial growing houses with advanced ventilation and temperature, as well as air and litter moisture, control measures. Furthermore, it questioned whether feeding all 16 strains of birds the same ration and incubating the birds the same way affected the findings.

The NCC is also monitoring a similar study at Mississippi State University evaluating chicken welfare, behavior and health as affected by growth rates. That study is expected to be complete in early 2021.

The challenges of growing slower breeds

Generally, the NCC is concerned with the environmental and economic impact of switching to a slower-growing broiler breed. It cited a study, “The Cost and Market Impacts of Slow-Growth Broilers,” published in September 2019 in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics which found the cost of chicken production would rise by between 25% and 49% if a widespread switch was instituted. Its own research, conducted in 2016, found that rise in cost would be accompanied by a similar rise in need for natural resources.

Using slower-growing birds could result in more challenging growing conditions, less efficient operations and more expensive meat. | (Courtesy Aviagen Group)

At least one producer, Bell & Evans, has attempted to switch its birds to a slower-growing breed and failed on a commercial level. In a November 2019 article in WATT PoultryUSA, Bell & Evans President and Owner Scott Sechler said when the company adopted a slower-growing bird in 2018 it lost 15 cents per pound on the meat because no one was willing to pay a premium for the product.

It changed its genetics again in 2019 to a bird that grows 15% slower than the birds it was using before the 2018 switch. Sechler went on to say his company’s experience should demonstrate the steep difficulty of growing and marketing a slower-growing bird.

Breeders weigh in

The questioning of broiler genetics puts pressure on the breeding companies themselves. The two leading companies in the U.S. – Cobb-Vantress Inc. and Aviagen Group – were contacted for this article. Cobb declined to comment but referred WATT PoultryUSA to the NCC for its response.

Aviagen North America President Marc de Beer said the company welcomes the research summary and the full results when they are published. Moreover, he said it is pleased most of the welfare and behavioral traits investigated in the study show “relatively small differences between the conventional and the slower-growing breeds.”

“Although some differences may be statistically significant, discrepancies such as the following are practically small: behavioral traits, use of enrichments, inactivity, and  there was no difference in  mortality,” de Beer said. 

He said breeders select both traits that enhance bird health and welfare as well as performance and feed efficiency in both slower-growing and conventional chickens. Continual improvements in feed efficiency is a key factor for sustainable production, reducing the carbon footprint of chicken production and the demand on natural resources. However, he said there is demand for both conventional and slower-growing chicken in the global poultry market.

He said slower-growing genotypes with lower biological efficiency can require 30% to 40% more natural resources than conventional genotypes. Integrators using slower-growing birds will have to charge more to remain profitable.

Striving for constant improvement

De Beer said breeding companies work with balanced breeding goals. They consider the relationship between better biological efficiency and higher welfare-related traits and selecting birds that show improved performance for both groups of traits at the same time.

Specific to the study’s findings on footpad and meat quality in slower-growing versus conventional birds, De Beer said “any differences that might exist are actively addressed through both genetic selection and best-practice management advice.

“We have made and will continue to make significant strides to improve footpad quality and reduce breast meat myopathies,” he said. “This trajectory of improvement remains our focus moving forward.”

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