John Webster: Consumers have power to end this cruelty

Share

The modern commercial broiler is reared in enclosed sheds that may contain 50,000 birds to reach killing weight at an age of 42 days. This rate of production has been achieved mainly by genetic selection for rapid growth, and it has created a number of welfare problems, the most serious of which is "leg weakness": an industry euphemism for a range of painful limb disorders sufficient to cause lameness.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote that "approximately one-third of the heavy strains of broiler chicken are in chronic pain for approximately one-third of their lives". This view was shared by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council (Fawc), who stated: "The current level of leg problems in broilers is unacceptable. The Council intends to look at this aspect of broiler production in five years' time, when significant improvements should be apparent. If no reduction in leg problems is found, we may recommend the introduction of legislation to ensure the required improvements."

New evidence presented to Defra reveals that, with notable exceptions, fast-growing strains of broiler chickens are as prone to leg disorders as ever. Moreover, research from Bristol University shows the problem is worse than we thought. Birds that appear only slightly lame will select food containing drugs to ease their pain. All lameness hurts.

Many of the welfare abuses that arise from the factory farming of broilers are faults of management. However the biggest problem is simply that the birds outgrow their strength. Some companies have reduced the problem through control of feeding and lighting, driven, in effect, by the need to reduce the risks of working with birds that are not fit for purpose.

Pressure of public opinion has achieved notable successes in the drive to improve farm animal welfare. Free-range eggs now account for 50 per cent to 100 per cent of total sales in most supermarkets. It is high time to extend our compassion to chickens reared for meat rather than eggs. Much can be achieved through consumer pressure: insistence on buying meat from slow-growing strains of birds reared under proven conditions of high welfare. These birds are in the shops now.

However there is also a need for political action. Fawc called for it 15 years ago but nothing has happened since. The most serious welfare abuse in the broiler industry has been the breeding of animals that are unfit for purpose.

Since the industry is dominated by fewer than five breeding companies that supply more than 80 per cent of the world market, we could remove the greatest abuse of chicken welfare through a ban on the production of birds unfit for purpose. I see no difference in principle between existing law that required egg producers to provide a better cage for laying hens within 10 years and a law that requires broiler breeders to produce a healthier bird.

John Webster is emeritus professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol, and author of Animal Welfare: Limping towards Eden

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits