They won’t be flying the coop, but millions of chickens are set to be reared in better conditions as UK chains sign up to new welfare conditions for farmed poultry.
KFC joined the European Chicken Commitment in July, joining over 30 signatories such as Marks & Spencer, Unilever, Nestlé, Waitrose, Danone and Elior Group. Now Casual Dining Group (CDG), which counts brands like Bella Italia, Cafe Rouge and Las Iguanas, has announced it has also come on board.
It requires operators to raise the minimum animal welfare standards across the industry by 2026.
Globally, chicken is expected to become the largest meat sector in the world by 2020. Kantar data showed that fresh and frozen chicken sales in the UK grew 2.6% in volume and 1.9% in value in 2018. Broken down by type, breast meat, which accounts for 60% of the total market was up 4%, dark meat by 4.4% and whole-bird sales grew 0.5%.
Despite a rise in the meat-free lifestyle, chicken remains an enduring favourite in the UK, with 93% of consumers eating it. To meet demand, over a billion chickens are raised in the UK each year, but the vast majority are put through intensive farming systems where they never see the outdoors, have the space of around the size of an A4 piece of paper each and live in huge flock sizes with up to 20,000 birds in a shed.
They are also genetically selected to grow very fast – up to 60g a day – which can have significant negative effects on their health, including heart problems and leg defects.
The new European commitment requires a number of changes be made to these production methods.
Measures include pledging to buy slower-growing breeds, introducing a stricter independent auditing process for all parties, ensuring stock density is reduced to give more spaces in barns, providing natural light and implementing humane slaughtering processes. It also involves investing in environmental enrichment initiatives, such as providing perches and pecking objects like straw and vegetables.
CDG said it signed the commitment after months of planning, analysis and engagement with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). As the first step, CDG and CIWF aim to host a working group later this year to develop a five-year action plan supported by annual progress reports prioritising the challenges that will need to be overcome in delivering the standards.
“The decision to sign this agreement was not something we took lightly, and we have conducted significant due diligence and research with CIWF to ensure we’re comfortable that plans are in place to meet the requirements of the commitment,” said Simon Galkoff, group procurement director at CDG.
“The key to achieving this will be working together as an industry to share best practice and come together to achieve a common goal. We’re very much looking forward to being part of this industry collaboration and continue our close working relationship with the team at Compassion in World Farming in a continual pursuit of improving practices across our entire supply chain.”
Dr Tracey Jones, Compassion’s director of food business, said they had been working with CDG for the last few years.
“We have seen them tackle confinement in laying hens and are delighted to see them extend their welfare focus to broiler chickens,” she commented. “They have a genuine ambition to make a positive contribution to animal welfare across their business, but also across the wider industry. Few companies can achieve these production changes alone and we urge others to join the movement to prioritise broiler welfare.”
The pecking order
The Commitment is the first time a single set of welfare requirements has been agreed on across the continent by a large coalition of European animal protection groups, including the RSPCA.
Supermarkets and restaurant chains have all been urged to commit, with CDG calling on companies with similar supply chains to work with them.
The move by major players like KFC – which uses an estimated 60m chickens a year in its 900 UK outlets – is expected place pressure on other operators too, including fast food chains.
However, supermarkets are actually the top sellers of chicken in the UK. Supermarkets shifted an extra 12.9m kilos of frozen and fresh chicken during the past year, a rise of 2.3%, according to Kantar, helping chicken sales grow to just under £2.2bn.
Research released by the RSCPA back in February found shoppers spend five times more or £1.5bn on intensively reared chicken – mostly unknowingly – compared to £281m on higher welfare options, such as RSPCA Assured, organic and free-range.
However, its poll found 86% of consumers said they expected supermarkets to ensure the chicken they sold was higher welfare.
The RSPCA uncovered supermarkets marketing initiatives that involved price promotions focusing on intensively reared chicken in all bar one supermarket, higher welfare chicken put in less prominent positions on shelves and some intensively reared chicken labelled 'higher standards' or including a photo that was not representative of standard indoor production, potentially misleading shoppers
It wants to see compulsory method-of-production labelling after Brexit. “Some supermarkets sell higher welfare chickens for just 71p more per kg, proving better chicken doesn’t have to cost much more,” the RSPCA’s Claire Williams said.