Broiler chickens

In this fact sheet: Broiler production & welfare, Disease, Transport, Slaughter, References

Broiler chickens (often referred to as ‘Broilers’) have been selectively bred and reared for their meat rather than eggs. The industry began in the late 1950’s and there are approximately 116 million broilers in the UK at any one time. 873 million broiler chickens were slaughtered in the UK in 2012(1). The majority of broiler chickens are housed in large windowless sheds in massive flocks holding tens of thousands of birds (20,000 - 50,000)(2).  

Broiler production & welfare

Broilers are hatched from eggs laid by breeding stock (broiler breeders). Broiler breeders are usually housed on deep litter (soft wood shavings, chopped straw, etc). They are slaughtered at around 10 months old when their peak egg production is passed. Just under 6 million (5.71 million) spent broiler breeders were slaughtered in England and Wales 2008 (1).
Each broiler breeder produces up to 140 chicks. While broiler breeders are growing to adulthood their food is severely restricted, resulting in severe hunger. The restriction of food is carried out to prevent them from growing as fast as the meat broilers; breeder broilers are required to survive to adulthood in order to produce chicks (2).
The surplus chicks produced (referred to as ‘hatchery waste’) are killed by a number of permitted methods. These include the use of mechanical apparatus producing immediate death such as a homogeniser which minces up chicks alive, exposure to gas mixtures or dislocation of the neck(1).

Intensively reared broilers exist on concrete floored sheds covered with a layer of litter. Chicks are placed in a brooding area when they arrive in-house and require careful monitoring as they are particularly susceptible to extremes of temperature. Broilers should not be exposed to strong, direct sunlight or hot humid conditions which could cause heat stress and death. All accommodation should be designed with adequate ventilation and access to light, either natural or artificial. Lighting should allow the birds to see clearly and stimulate activity. Houses should have a uniform level of light and if behavioural problems, such as cannibalism, occur then it is recommended that the lights are dimmed for a few days. Artificial light should be given for at least 8 hours a day for those with no access to daylight and 30 minutes of darkness must be given each day so the birds become used to total darkness and help prevent panic in the event of a power failure. Birds are closely packed and have little space to move around in.

The current recommended maximum stocking density is stated as 34 kg of bird per square metre (up to 17 chickens per square meter). As the birds grow, conditions deteriorate and the sheds become increasingly crowded until the shed floor becomes a solid mass of chickens competing to reach food and water. The birds’ natural behaviour to perch, walk, run and fly are obviously frustrated in the shed environment.  

An EU law came into force in 2010 which allowed chickens across Europe to be stocked at a higher density than previously (up to 42 kg of bird per square meter). This means that the birds will have to endure an even more overcrowded environment. The amount of space given is equivalent to 21 birds being packed into an area of one square meter. 

Standard intensively farmed broiler chickens are reared to their slaughter weight of around 1.8 to 3 kg within just 6 weeks of being hatched (chickens are normally fully grown by 5-6 months). By selective breeding, the length of time broiler chicks take to grow to 2kg has been halved in the last 30 years. As broilers are bred to grow as fast as possible this has led to them becoming more inactive.  Their frame cannot support their own weight and this affects the way they walk and puts additional stresses on their hips and legs. At just 6 weeks old, they spend 76%-86% of their time lying down (3). Birds severely crippled and deformed die of starvation and thirst, unable to reach food or water. Other birds may only be able to move by using their wings to balance. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) describes these birds as "obviously distressed". Broilers have a mortality rate 7 times that of young laying hens of the same age(2). Every day 100,000 birds die in UK broiler sheds as a result of heart failure, disease and afflictions caused by intensive methods of production (4).  

Mutilations of broilers can cause considerable pain and it is recommended by DEFRA that they should only be carried out where necessary to avoid worsening the welfare problem. Beak-trimming of birds for meat should not be necessary as they are usually slaughtered before reaching sexual maturity. If it is to be carried out then it should be done by either a veterinary surgeon or in accordance with the Veterinary Surgery (Exemptions) Order 1962. Dubbing (cutting out of toes) must be performed by a vet if the bird has reached 3 days in age, otherwise it may be carried out by unqualified persons over 18 using a suitable instrument. Other mutilations include de-spurring and de-clawing. The following mutilations are prohibited by law; de-winging, pinioning, notching, tendon severing, the use of blinkers which pierce the nasal septum, surgical castration and devoicing (1).  

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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