Animal Welfare for Broiler Chickens
Consumers want to be sure that all animals being raised for food are treated with respect and are properly cared for during their lives. The people and companies involved in raising chickens for food share the public’s concern. They recognize that they have an ethical obligation to make sure that the animals on their farms are well cared for.
The chicken industry has come together on a specific set of expectations that will ensure that the birds they raise are taken care of with the highest standards starting at hatch. Since healthy, top-quality animals are needed for food, proper treatment is not only an ethical obligation, but it just makes good business sense.
Carefully formulated feed, access to a plentiful supply of clean water, adequate room to grow, professional veterinary attention, and proper handling are all important factors in the management of young meat chicken flocks, also referred to as broilers, and the production of high-quality food products.
To assist the people and the companies who produce and process chickens for food, the National Chicken Council developed the NCC Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist which have been widely adopted within the chicken industry. These guidelines cover every phase of the chicken’s life and offers science-based recommendations for proper treatment. Among other things, it includes chapters on:
- Corporate commitment
- Hatchery operations
- Proper nutrition and feeding
- Appropriate comfort and shelter
- Health care and monitoring
- Ability to display most normal behaviors
- On-farm best practices
- Catching and transportation
- Breeder operations (if present)
Some key points include:
- Top management must sign off on the program.
- Company must have a person or management group in charge of animal welfare throughout company.
- Those involved in handling live animals must be trained annually.
- Abuse of the animals is not tolerated under any circumstances.
- Stocking density is limited based on size of the individual bird.
- Ammonia in atmosphere and moisture in litter are limited.
- Humane handling required at catching.
- Wing and leg damage are limited and monitored.
- Birds protected from extremes of temperature in transportation and holding and provided with ventilation.
- All birds must be dead before entering the scalder.
- Culled birds to be humanely euthanized.
- “Major non-conformance” (live chicken in hatchery waste, abuse of birds, live bird in DOA bin, live bird through scalder) results in audit failure until problem is corrected.
NCC’s Animal Welfare program is backed up by a detailed audit checklist that can be completed by the company itself, by a customer representative, or a third-party auditor. Click to download the complete audit checklist for Broilers and Broiler-Breeders.
The Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) trains auditors to the NCC program, and use of PAACO-trained auditors is recommended.
The National Chicken Council represents companies that produce, process and market chickens for their meat. We do not represent companies that produce and sell eggs for human consumption. The egg industry has its own organization and its own welfare standards.
Broilers (young meat chickens) are not raised in cages. They are raised in large, open structures known as growout houses. These houses are well-equipped with mechanical systems to deliver feed and water to the birds and have environmental systems to provide a comfortable and protective environment, including ventilation systems and heaters that function as needed, most often with micro-processor controls. The earthen floor of the house is covered with bedding material consisting of organic matter such as wood chips, rice hulls, or peanut shells. Because dry bedding helps maintain flock health, most growout houses have enclosed watering systems rather than open troughs, because enclosed systems (“nipple drinkers”) reduce spillage and help keep the litter dry.
Broiler breeding flocks that provide fertile eggs for the hatchery are also carefully managed. Since these hens lay the eggs that become the broilers for market, it is critically important that the flock be kept productive with minimum stress. Breeding hens are also kept in large, open houses, not in cages.
Keeping birds inside a house protects them from predators such as hawks and foxes. Some houses are equipped with curtain walls, which can be rolled up in good weather to admit natural light and fresh air. In that case, a fine mesh screen keeps insects, rodents and wild birds out of the house and away from the broilers. Such biosecurity measures are critical to ensuring the health of the flock.
Most growout houses built in recent years feature “tunnel ventilation,” in which a bank of fans draws fresh air through the house. Tunnel ventilation significantly improves the bird’s atmosphere and litter quality helping to maintain the health of the birds.
Traditionally, a flock of broilers consist of about 20,000 birds in a growout house that measures 400 feet long and 40 feet wide, thus providing an area of about 16,000 square feet, or eight-tenths of a square foot per bird. As the birds age, they grow into this space. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) states that the minimum space is one-half square foot per bird, so industry practice is well in excess of this space requirement. By nature, as the old saying goes, the birds do tend to flock together.
More modern houses are often larger and contain more birds, but the floor space allotment still meets the needs of the birds. Extra feeding and watering equipment can be installed to accommodate the larger floor space.
Because broilers are relatively young and have not reached sexual maturity, they exhibit very little aggressive conduct and engage in little of the social interaction known as “pecking order.” As one academic paper put it, “Broilers are very docile and are also marketed at such an early age that they have not yet formed a dominance hierarchy.” (Joy Mench and Paul Siegel, “Animal Welfare Issues: Poultry”)
Chicken feed consists primarily of corn and soybean meal with the addition of essential vitamins and minerals. No hormones or steroids are allowed in raising chickens.
Water is usually drawn from a well on the farm or from a municipal water supply and is pumped into the house to be available to the chickens as desired.
Every broiler company employs or contracts with professional veterinarians to care for the health needs of the birds. The farmers and company service personnel monitor the birds for any health problems and promptly inform the company veterinary staff so that appropriate action can be taken. Several medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat health problems in broiler chickens. A withdrawal period is provided before the birds are sent to the processing plant to make sure any medication residue is removed from the birds’ systems.
Company personnel are required to handle the birds in an appropriate manner during pickup and arrival at the processing plant. Birds that display bruises are not allowed to have those bruised parts sold for human food, so the companies have a strong economic incentive to make sure that birds are handled properly.
After arrival at the plant, birds are anesthetized with a mild electric current and then humanely slaughtered. The stunning renders the birds insensitive to pain.
In a typical system, the anesthetized birds are passed by a device that severs the carotid and/or jugular arteries. This whole process takes place in seconds.
Today’s broiler chicken is a combination of several breeds. Desirable characteristics include white feathers (to give the skin a clear appearance) and abundant breast meat. Breeding is done in the traditional manner. There is no “genetic engineering” or “genetic modification” in the chicken industry.
Birds are subject to a variety of diseases, just as humans are. Just like humans, they receive inoculations against the diseases for which vaccines are available. Most broiler companies now use a machine which injects the vaccines into the egg during the incubation period. The chicken embryo absorbs the vaccine during its final three days of growth in the egg. After the chicks are hatched, they pass through another machine which sprays them with a light mist containing another inoculation against other diseases.
Most chicken growout houses are located in the South, in the so-called “Broiler Belt” stretching from Delaware to Texas. While the South has the advantage of mild winters, it is also subject to periods of very hot weather in the summer. If the environment in a growout house is not properly maintained, this could lead to extensive mortality of the broilers who lack sweat glands and are unable to regulate their own temperature. The solution has been the installation of large fans in conjunction with tunnel ventilation that keeps air moving throughout the house. Many growout houses are also equipped with evaporative cooling pads or other system that put moisture into the air. This causes a cooling of the air passing over the birds. These innovations have greatly reduced hot-weather mortality.
In sum, broiler companies are well aware of their responsibility to treat birds in a responsible and humane manner. They also have strong economic incentives to do so. Criticism of industry practices comes largely from people who are opposed to using animals for food under any circumstances, a philosophy that is not accepted by the vast majority of Americans.