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Chicken without the guilty conscience

The Colonel may still keep his recipe secret but KFC’s new welfare audit offers a look-see into the lives its chickens have. David Burrows reports.

Amid all the talk of chlorine washing, cramped cages and razing forests to produce their feed, chickens were due a good news story. And last month we got two.

First, KFC published a “chicken welfare progress report”, which offered a peak into what goes on in its supply chain before those 11 secret herbs and spices are added. Then Nando’s launched a new commitment to improve welfare whilst simultaneously lowering greenhouse gas emissions from production – which is easier said than done given that intensification tends to be more efficient.

So why have these two chains suddenly started caring about chickens?

The shift has actually been coming for some time. Polling has long shown animal welfare to be a key consideration for consumers when buying food; the latest Mintel survey (April 2019) showed it tops the list of ethical and environmental factors – above, even, sustainable packaging. In an era of “plastiphobia” that’s impressive.

Campaigners have also upped the ante. World Animal Protection started its annual “Pecking Order” reports in 2018 in a bid to highlight the “unacceptable ways” chickens are raised to supply fast food chains. Both KFC and Nando’s are also ranked in the well-respected Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW).

Meanwhile, the likes of Greenpeace and Eating Better have shone a spotlight on the feed supply chain. “We need to talk about chicken,” said Eating Better given the growth in consumption of the meat as consumers switch from beef due to health or environmental concerns (chicken has a far lower carbon footprint than beef). The report exposed some of the “hidden” costs of modern production, from lameness in the birds to the supply of soya. Meanwhile, none of the 23 UK food brands surveyed by Greenpeace could guarantee the soya they used for meat products was deforestation-free.

Neither Nando’s nor KFC – the two biggest poultry-pushers – were faring well when it came to protection of their feathered friends. Both were rated “very poor” by World Animal Protection for their commitments, targets and transparency on chicken welfare in 2018. Their competitors specialising in beef burgers actually looked after their chickens better (though were still rated “poor”). Something had to give.

KFC’s big move relates to disclosure. “We wholeheartedly applaud this transparency,” said Tracey Jones, global director of food business at Compassion in World Farming, of the new welfare report. The NGO realises the importance of working with businesses rather than against them, especially one that has almost 1,000 sites in the UK. And the Colonel’s move to open the cage (or barn) door for us to see what’s inside deserves credit (as do the campaigners for their persistence).

The audit of 350 of its 2,000ish chicken farms is clear and concise. Over 26 pages it shows how the use of antibiotics remains well below the target rate, with a slight increase last year under investigation. Mortality rates are also falling. That it has started reporting all this has seen the chain jump up the pecking order report (it’s now seen as “making progress” and has leapfrogged the big burger chains to sit top of the table) and the BBFAW.

Critically the report shows there is more to do. Only 52.28% of the chickens have access to natural daylight, with a similar number (52.25%) given access to “enrichment” like perches and pecking objects. Breast blisters (more likely in heavy and inactive birds) and hock burns (caused by the ammonia from the waste of other birds) are also issues. This is warts and all corporate reporting after all.

There is a long way to go on stocking densities too: 1% of KFC UK and Ireland’s chickens are reared below the European Chicken Commitment (ECC) target of 30kg/m2. “Lower stocking densities require more space and therefore more farms,” KFC notes. This is likely to push costs up as well as carbon emissions. As Footprint has reported, farmers aren’t convinced by the commitment’s welfare benefits either.

Nando’s reckons it can improve the welfare of its chickens – it has also now signed up to the ECC – while reducing their carbon “clawprint”. This will see it hone in on chicken feed, in particular soya, which is linked to deforestation and can therefore come with hefty greenhouse gas emissions. However, reports that its suppliers will be feeding algae and insects to their birds rather than soya is wide of the mark, a spokesperson said. “We will be supporting research into more sustainable types of feed for chickens, which may include insects/algae, as part of our overarching commitment to environmental sustainability.”

Nando’s plan stretches further than animal welfare: it also has ambitions to increase plant-based options on its menu, for example. That it has made a splash with the plan is intriguing. Only last year its head of sustainability told me “We tend not to do press releases from stuff from my team.” So far the plan seems to be no more than a long press release but the commitments are now in print so progress will be closely monitored.

“Nando’s has made this commitment at a time of great uncertainty, particularly in the food service sector, as the world deals with the effects of covid-19,” said CIWF’s Jones. “Now, more than ever, responsible food production with the animal and environment at its heart, is of the utmost importance and we applaud Nando’s forging ahead with their plans.”

The news from KFC and Nando’s certainly plays well to the chorus of heightened interest in all things ESG (environmental social governance) currently. But these changes won’t come cheap. ECC, for example, requires a shift to slower growing breeds that have “better gait, fewer injuries and are less prone to disease, which translates into lower use of antibiotics”, according to CIWF. Just 2.65% of KFC’s chickens are from such higher welfare breeds. “Once the right breeds have been identified the transition on the scale required will take more than 3 – 4 years to implement in each market,” KFC noted.

That both Nando’s and KFC have a conscience when it comes to their chickens will certainly calm campaigners and reassure customers. In an era when poultry has (thanks to Brexit) become front-page news the message is: “you can trust us.” With trust now second only to price when it comes to purchasing decisions, and animal welfare a top consideration for consumers, this is an astute move. The birds will benefit too.

How this will all play out for the price of a bargain bucket at KFC or the PERi PERi dishes at Nando’s is less clear. Both chains are part of the squeezed middle as far as chicken shops go. At the value end of the sector are the Chicken Cottages of this world that have emerged as one of the lockdown’s “few high street success stories” according to a recent report in the FT. At the other end of the spectrum are the posh poultry outlets that pre-pandemic were doing handsomely, according to Mintel. With consumer spending under pressure suppliers will be worried they will be left to pick up the bill for improved bird welfare.