Together with other groups, we developed the European Chicken Commitment to help the 7.2 billion chickens that are fattened and slaughtered in Europe every year. Despite the increasing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, combined with the intention of many people to reduce their meat consumption, this figure has remained relatively constant (in 2010, for example, the figure was 591 million). Since there is little prospect of significantly reducing the number of broiler chickens through campaigns designed to persuade consumers to change their behaviours, we see it as our duty to reduce the suffering of these animals as far as we possibly can. This is why we developed the European Chicken Commitment together with animal welfare and animal rights organisations from all over Europe. Today, 37 organizations are involved in the initiative. Together we approach food companies to persuade them to meet the criteria of the Commitment. These criteria aim to address the areas that contribute most significantly to the enormous suffering in the poultry fattening industry and outline a series of demands on companies in the food industry.
The European Chicken Commitment in detail
The criteria defined in the European Chicken Commitment are considerably more stringent than those required by animal welfare law and also the standards of the wide-spread German »Initiative Tierwohl« (Animal Welfare Initiative), according to which a proportion of the meat sold in supermarkets and discounter chains is sold. The table below highlights the main differences:
|Standard in DE||»Initiative Tierwohl«||European Chicken Commitment|
|Stocking density||39kg/m² (up to 26 animals/m²)||35kg/m² (up to 23 animals/m²)||30kg/m² (up to 20 animals/m²)|
|Access to free-range areas||No||No||No|
|Thinning||Unrestricted||Unrestricted||Max. 1 per flock|
|Restriction on overbreeding||No||No||Yes|
|Daylight||Partial, 20 Lux||Partial, 20 Lux||Yes, 50 Lux|
|Pecking substrates||No||One for approx. 3.000 animals||Two for 1.000 animals|
|Stunning without hanging birds upside down||No||No||Yes|
Before we look at the details, the criteria defined in the European Chicken Commitment represent a big step in the right direction. Indeed, given the current level of research and knowledge in the areas of animal health and welfare, we could quite legitimately demand a lot more, but the reality of the situation prevents us from demanding too much, too soon. This is why we – in collaboration with the other organisations – have created a compromise that reflects everything that we believe is currently achievable.
Studies show that the stocking density would have to be reduced to 25 kg/m² in order to prevent certain kinds of sickness and disease – painful inflammations, for example – and give the animals some freedom to move around. Our proposed 30 kg/m² is a step in the right direction that was calculated by striking a balance between cost- and benefit-related considerations.
Access to free-range areas
Here, too, the Commitment has reached a compromise: winter gardens and free-range areas require expensive conversion measures and are rarely approved anyway. Since our mission is to establish our demands as the new minimum standard, we cannot demand access to free-range areas.
Thinning describes the process whereby a proportion of chickens are removed from a shed for slaughter earlier than the rest. This causes considerable stress both for the captured chickens and for those that remain in the shed. This method is used for increasing the number of animals that can be fattened in a shed. While the European Chicken Commitment calls for an end to thinning, it does permit it a maximum of once in each fattening cycle.
We consider the »hybrid lines« used in standard poultry fattening processes (including »Initiative Tierwohl«) to constitute torture breeding. The animals grow so fast that their skeleton and internal organs are placed under a huge amount of stress. In addition, the animals are bred to have such large chest muscles that many of them can no longer keep their balance. The European Chicken Commitment prohibits this. That said, the hybrid lines for fattening can arise from a cross between animals from intensive and less intensive breeding practices, which means that the Commitment cannot solve the problem of possible torture breeding among the parent animals.
Sheds approved prior to 2009 are not required to provide the animals with any daylight. Although more recently constructed sheds are required to have windows, in reality only very little daylight actually enters the sheds. Consider the following comparison: the standard 20 lux is roughly equivalent to moonlight, while the 50 lux demanded in the European Chicken Commitment offers at least as much light required for, say, a person to read a newspaper. This is relevant because chickens are unable to practice their normal behavioural repertoire at less than 50 lux.
Perches, pecking substrates and air quality
Chickens like to sit at a height, and pecking is one of their basic needs. Under the conditions demanded in the European Chicken Commitment, the animals can do both at least to some extent. Air quality is also important because elevated concentrations of harmful gases (e.g. ammonia) can cause suffering.
Stunning and slaughter
The legal standard and »Initiative Tierwohl« permit electrical waterbath stunning. Here, the chickens are hung upside down by their legs in a shackle, a process that frequently results in broken bones and other injuries. With their heads immersed, the birds then pass through an electrical waterbath that is designed to induce unconsciousness. Unfortunately, an insufficient stunning effect is all too common with this method. The European Chicken Commitment calls for an end to hanging birds upside down and helps to considerably reduce the risk of an insufficient stunning effect. The most common alternative to the electrical waterbath – two-stage CO2 stunning – is less problematic, but still causes pain and stress.
We are calling for an annual standards audit to be conducted by an independent third party.
The companies are required to implement the criteria in full by 2026 at the latest, although we do expect German companies to implement the criteria more quickly. We chose the year 2026 to make the deadline more realistic for southern and eastern European countries, where animal welfare standards generally lag behind.