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Cheap as chicks

Chickens need wide open space to enjoy their lives and tend to their young.

Imagine you are locked in a tiny cage with ten other people and every time you try to stretch your arms or legs, you can’t because you’re so tightly squashed together. Now imagine you are forced to defecate and urinate where you stand and then have to sleep there too.

Sadly, that’s the harsh reality for millions of chickens every day and for the entirety of their brief lives. Eight-hundred and fifty-five million chickens are reared for their meat in the UK each year. According to the RSPCA, the majority of these chickens are reared to standards that are unacceptably low.

The reason for these lowered standards is that the most cost-effective way to rear chickens is to fit as many birds as possible into a controlled environment – such as an enclosed shed – and then encourage them to grow as quickly as possible.

However, people are starting to change their buying habits following recent awareness campaigns by the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations. There have also been widely-publicized television programmes featuring celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that have highlighted the plight of battery chickens.

A recent RSPCA poll shows that 73 per cent of consumers said that since recently discovering the fact that chickens may have been farmed in poor conditions, they have now switched to buying chickens that have had a better life.

Not only this, but nearly three out of four people feel supermarkets should only sell higher-welfare chicken such as those labelled Freedom Food, free-range or organic.

But if you are still not sure why you should care, then here are some of the key issues affecting chickens bred for meat.

Space allowance Around 90 per cent of chickens are reared for their meat to minimum welfare standards. This means that each chicken is allowed less space than a sheet of A4 paper – that’s less space than is allowed for egg-laying hens which are kept in cages.

Fast growth

Chickens are bred to grow very quickly. The time from hatching to appearing as packaged meat in the supermarket, can be as little as 35 days. This rapid growth can cause a variety of health problems for the birds, such as heart failure and lameness.

Lighting to maximise growth rate Birds are too often kept in near constant dim light. This encourages activity to maximise growth and they are only given a few hours of complete darkness each day to rest properly. Such conditions encourage the birds to eat more and therefore grow more quickly.

Signs of suffering RSPCA research has revealed that 80 per cent of “standard” supermarket chickens have hock burn. These are leg sores that are caused by prolonged contact with wood shavings on the floors of sheds which contain high levels of ammonia from excrement.

Chickens are reared in one of three systems – indoors, free-range or organic. Good welfare can only be achieved in all three systems if the chickens are provided with the right conditions.

As a result of recording unacceptable conditions, the RSPCA welfare standards (labelled Freedom Food) for meat chickens now insist that:

birds are given more space to allow them to flap their wings and walk aroundbirds are allowed brighter lighting during the day and a longer dark period at night to allow them a proper rest periodbirds are given a more interesting living space including perches, straw bales and pecking objects to encourage activity and the expression of natural behaviourbirds are selected from genetically slower growing breeds to help overcome the serious welfare problems associated with faster growth rates.Still confused about which chicken to buy? Look for packaging labelled Freedom Food, free-range or organic.

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