Race to find slower-growing chickens accelerates

A new Marks & Spencer commitment is a landmark moment for bird welfare, but industry-wide changes will take time and significant investment. David Burrows reports.

M&S is to sell only slower-growing, British, RSPCA-Assured chicken across its full range of fresh chicken products by autumn 2022. The commitment is a “landmark achievement for animal welfare”, according to RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood.

Most chickens are bred to grow big and fast, with many ready for market in just 33 days. This minimises costs but can have serious consequences for bird welfare. Slow the process down (to, say, 48 days) and you get birds that have better gait, fewer injuries and are less prone to disease, according to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).  

Research last year, published in Nature, also showed that using slower-growing breeds produced more welfare benefits than lowering the stocking densities. The researchers further claimed these birds have “more fun”. “A shift away from fast-growing breeds would provide the most significant improvement for the lives of the 142 million chickens produced in Europe every week," said Annie Rayner from FAI Farms and one of the researchers involved.

Many foodservice brands have signed up to using slower-growing breeds as part of the Better Chicken Commitment (supermarkets, meanwhile, have been criticised for ‘dragging their heels’). KFC joined in 2019, followed by Nando’s, Pizza Express and Greggs in 2020. Burger King signed up earlier this year. Contract caterers including Sodexo, Compass, Elior and CH&Co are also involved.

By 2026 they will need to meet the commitments, which include the use of slow-growing breeds, as well as reduced stocking densities and the provision of light and ‘enrichments’. That may seem a long way off but M&S is believed to have decided this move around 12 to 18 months ago. Supermarket supply chains are also arguably simpler than those in foodservice, so companies that have made the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) must start their transition now.

Indeed, the scale of the challenge involved in this slow-breed shift should not be underestimated. For example, just 2.65% of KFC’s chickens are from such higher welfare breeds currently. Once the right breeds have been selected it will take more than three to four years to switch over in each market, KFC noted in its 2020 chicken welfare report.

The wind does, however, appear to be blowing behind this move to higher welfare breeds. Consumers are seeking out what are being billed as ‘happy chickens’ and investors are closely scrutinising welfare as part of their ESG due diligence. But as KFC also noted, there are commercial and environmental considerations that need to be factored in. More days alive potentially means more feed, more energy, more emissions – and more costs.

In 2019, the National Farmers Union (NFU) commissioned two reports to “better understand” the BCC. The one written by ADAS, compared the production costs of birds reared in line with the BCC against those from the Red Tractor (RT) quality assurance scheme. “The total cost of production was calculated to be £1.81 per bird to RT standards and £2.14 per bird for BCC standards,” the authors noted. “These figures are equivalent to 80p and 95p per kilo (liveweight) respectively, a difference of over 18%.”

Feed is the largest single cost component, with a BCC bird consuming 22% more feed than an RT one. But ADAS noted that growers typically use the same feeds for standard and slower-growing breeds rather than varying it. M&S said its birds will be fed on “a multigrain diet, specifically designed to support their slower natural growth and muscle development, giving the chicken a great flavour and succulence”.

If the BCC manages to take a 25% market share by 2026 (up from 5% in 2019), then an additional 66,000 tonnes of soy will also be required, according to ADAS. The environmental footprint of the BCC is also higher, the authors argued. While emissions on a ‘per square metre per year’ basis are 21% lower, they are 23% higher ‘per kilo of chicken liveweight’.

These findings prompted the NFU to conclude in a summary report that the BCC standard “runs contrary” to productivity and environment priorities. It is “a very expensive way to produce chicken (+18% on farm costs), uses more water (+22%) and produces more greenhouse gases (+23%) without a demonstrable improvement in welfare”.

Footprint understands the carbon impact of M&S’s decision has been taken into consideration. Campaigners are also engaged in research to better determine the impacts such higher welfare systems have in terms of emissions. This will help businesses, who are grappling with a number of trade-offs as they piece together the puzzle of so-called ‘better meat’ (the subject of a report by Footprint set to be published later this summer).

Indeed, it should be noted that those ADAS calculations come with an important proviso: that per capita chicken consumption remains unchanged. In the shift to better meat the concept of ‘less’ cannot be forgotten. It’s also easier to claim that it is carbon not cost that’s preventing a shift to higher welfare birds.

Campaigners, who have been encouraged by BCC uptake in the foodservice sector, say they are very much aware of the commercial realities involved. If the BCC reaches 25% market share, the costs involved in the additional growing space would total £164m (and £620m if it hits 100%), according to ADAS. Long-term commitments from food companies are “really key”, says Cliona Duffy, head of corporate partnerships at RSPCA Assured. The NFU called for secure commitments of at least five years: “Poultry farmers would be willing to work to the [BCC] standard as long as they can gain confidence from the market that the increased cost of production would be offset.” 


M&S’s commitment has certainly set the cat amongst the chickens – but is this good news for the birds? The other NFU-commissioned report, by poultry vets at Crowshall Veterinary Services, suggested it was “difficult to conclude that the use of such breeds offer a significant advantage over faster growing breeds under commercial conditions”.

More studies like the one done by Rayner and her colleagues would certainly help. “We found that, when you walk through a commercial flock, you just have to turn around and look behind you to see chickens frolicking in your footsteps,” the researchers said. “This was especially the case in the slower growing flocks."

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