Fast food giant KFC has laid bare the realities of chicken production after admitting to poor welfare conditions among its suppliers.
More than a third of the birds on its supplier farms in the UK and Ireland suffer from a painful inflammation known as footpad dermatitis that in severe cases can prevent birds from walking normally.
Footpad dermatitis is characterised by lesions on the feet, usually because of poor ventilation and litter management. KFC said the number of birds affected had fallen from more than half to 35% in just four years, and that its top suppliers were achieving levels of 15% or below.
Nearly all the chickens reared for KFC are fast-growing breeds that take just 30 days to reach slaughter weight. The push for high growth rates and maximum amounts of breast meat has exacerbated health and welfare problems for birds, including inability to move and liver and heart failure.
One in 10 KFC chickens also suffer hock burn caused by ammonia from the waste of other birds, which can burn through the skin of the leg – a condition typically associated with inactive birds.
While the overall number of birds that die or are culled because of disease, injury or lameness is falling, the weighted mortality rate on KFC farms is still around 4%. In a flock of 10,000 birds that means around 400 birds dying or being culled.
The British Poultry Council said the average mortality rate for the industry as a whole was 2-3%. The UK’s Red Tractor farm assurance scheme requires mortality to not exceed 5%.
KFC has been praised by animal welfare campaigners for its willingness to make public the data in its first ever animal welfare report. The data will be used by the company to track its progress in tackling various welfare measures, including mortality rates, antibiotic use and stocking density.
“It’s great to see how transparent the business has been in providing valuable information and highlighting areas for improvement. Animal welfare is no longer an abstract issue and now more than ever people understand the importance of improving the lives of chickens,” said Tracey Jones, global director of food business at Compassion in World Farming.
Lindsay Duncan, campaign manager at World Animal Protection, said: “They have a lot of progress to make, but we’re very happy that they’ve come out with this level of public data and transparency which they can now be held accountable on.”
KFC says it wants to transition more of its 34 suppliers to slower growing breeds, which are less prone to disease and injury, helping to reduce the need for antibiotics. Although antibiotic use had been falling, the company said it was investigating the reasons for a slight increase last year among its suppliers. It said a move towards slower-growing breeds would require collaboration and commitment across the EU as well as in Thailand and Brazil.
The fast food company also wants to reduce stocking density on its supplier farms. Higher densities are associated with a number of animal health and welfare problems, including footpad dermatitis as well as a diminished capacity to exhibit natural behaviours.
“Reducing stocking density is a big factor in footpad dermatitis because fewer chickens means more space for the birds to move, less litter around and better ventilation,” said Duncan.
KFC said footpad dermatitis could be driven by a number of factors linked to the management of the chickens’ environment, feed and health. The company said it offered advice to its suppliers, including helping to optimise the environment for the chickens and the bedding used, to drive improvement.
However, KFC says improvements to stocking density would require more space and more farms, and that would need the support of government agencies with the power to approve new chicken farms – itself a controversial topic.
KFC has now signed up to the NGO-led Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) to improve animal welfare standards for birds.
“Meeting the criteria in the BCC is no easy feat, but KFC have put in place an active programme outlining the changes that need to be made to improve the brand’s supply chain, culminating in the publishing of the first report,” said Paula MacKenzie, general manager of KFC UK and Ireland.
“This report sends a clear message to everyone – our suppliers, our teams and our stakeholders – on exactly what we are looking for in terms of welfare improvement. We know that what gets measured gets managed, and the figures in this report represent a solid benchmark against which we can track our future progress.”
A spokesperson for the British Poultry Council said there was a market for every kind of chicken in the UK, but that enforcing higher welfare standards would create a “two-tier food system” in which UK produce would only be available to the wealthy.
The National Farmers’ Union has said the BCC would increase on-farm costs and greenhouse gas emissions, without delivering a demonstrable improvement in bird welfare.
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