By Dr Marc Cooper, Head of Farm Animals RSPCA 

The issue of where our meat comes from and how the animal was raised has become increasingly important to consumers in recent years, and cheaper meat can often mean that the animal was raised to lower welfare standards

But does a cheap price tag mean more than poor welfare and could the shopper also end up with inferior quality meat?

Thanks to a grant*, the RSPCA was able to commission first-of-its-kind independent research that explored the welfare concerns around faster-growing breeds of meat chickens, which make up the vast majority of the one billion chickens reared for meat in the UK each year. The study revealed that, compared to a commercially viable slower-growing higher-welfare breed, the faster-growing breeds were up to around twice as likely to die or be culled due to ill health, up to four times more likely to suffer from hock burn, and up to three and a half times more likely to suffer lameness.  Also, these faster growing birds struggled to carry out natural behaviours such as perching, foraging and dust-bathing, particularly as they reached slaughter weight. The research revealed that many of the birds reared in this country and around the world do not have a ‘life worth living’ due to the suffering they endure.

However, as well as these health, welfare and productivity issues, the study revealed another interesting finding: faster-growing chickens were up to nearly eight times more likely to have breast muscle disease – a condition known as white striping due to the fatty deposits in the muscle appearing as white stripes. The disease affects the functioning of the muscle fibres and results in muscular weakness. 

Many shoppers picking up a chicken breast off the supermarket shelves believe they are getting a lean and healthy piece of meat, but our study revealed that cheaper products may not be as good for them as most people assume. 

Further, the research showed that these faster-growing breeds of chicken were also up to twenty three times more likely to suffer from another breast disease issue known as wooden breast – where cells have died (and therefore the muscle hardens and becomes ‘woody’), leading to poor-quality, tough meat.

Livestock breeding programmes focus on increasing productivity. In fact, since the 1950s, genetic companies have halved the time it takes for a meat chicken to achieve the same slaughter weight – cutting it by about one day per year – as well as significantly improving the conversion of feed into muscle, which have reduced production costs considerably. But this focus has been at the expense of the health and welfare of the birds.

White striping and wooden breast both result in progressive deterioration and loss of function in the tissues, and actually causes the muscle fibres to weaken, and in the case of wooden breast, cells start to die off and harden. Research has shown that the associated inflammation that can occur with these diseases may also cause pain to the bird. 

The presence of both white striping and wooden breast causes the meat to be downgraded before it’s sent into the commercial world to be sold, and this can result in quantities of meat being disregarded – contributing to food waste.

Taking all these factors into account highlights the reality of today’s chicken meat production when using faster-growing breeds: suffering of the birds, poor quality meat, and food waste. But it doesn’t have to be this way, there are commercially viable higher welfare breeds that can be used. 

The RSPCA is calling on food businesses to sign up to the Better Chicken Commitment, a European initiative to improve the welfare of meat chickens. Visit the RSPCA’s campaign page for more information. Purchasers of chicken meat can also make a difference by buying RSPCA Assured labelled chicken meat which is produced from higher welfare breeds. Soil Association organic chicken and Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare chicken standard also use slower growing breeds. 

*Funding for the work was provided by the Farm Animal Welfare Forum, which brings together a group of influential organisations concerned with improving farm animal welfare.

Image courtesy of Compassion in World Farming.