Cost of living crisis could stall campaign to phase out the modern genetically selected fast-growing broiler
The Ross 308 is one of the most successful products in consumer history, with many tens of billions sold around the world over the last decade.
With its own 15-page performance manual, low production costs and a bargain price for shoppers, it is marketed as the world’s most popular meat chicken.
Owned by the global breeding firm Aviagen, the Ross 308 has been bred to reach its kill weight in just 35 days, growing more than three times faster than the conventional breeds of the 1950s.
While families across the country gather this weekend, the Ross 308 will be an affordable option for the Easter Sunday roast. A whole chicken can be bought for as little as £2.46.
Animal welfare campaigners claim the cost of such low-priced meat is being paid for by the chickens, which grow so fast their hearts and bone structures can struggle to cope. They want retailers to stop selling the Ross 308 and the Cobb 500, the Uk’s other main fast-growing breed, citing research showing these chickens had higher mortality, lameness and muscle disease than slower-growing breeds.
But the poultry industry warned this weekend that adopting slower-growing breeds could increase the price of a standard chicken by more than 30% at a time when consumers face a cost of living crisis. This puts meat chickens – known in the industry as broilers – at the centre of one of the biggest animal welfare battles since the 2012 ban on barren battery cages for hens.
There are now 325 retailers and firms in the UK and Europe, including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, KFC and Premier Foods, that have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, the international initiative to phase out the use of fast-growing breeds, which campaigners call “Frankenchickens”.
The commitment requires companies to adopt slower-growing breeds by 2026, including some produced by Aviagen, with higher welfare outcomes and reduced stocking density.
All the major food supermarkets in France have signed up to the commitment. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said in February that one of its welfare priorities was to implement the commitment.
However, most of the major supermarkets in the UK, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, are yet to sign up to the pledge and there is concern among campaigners that the cost of living crisis may be used to stall the campaign.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, warned last month that the price of chicken could rise significantly because of higher energy costs and feed prices affected by war in Ukraine.
Campaigners say poultry has been produced too cheaply and farmers need to be paid more to ensure better conditions for the meat chickens.
On the modern food plate, the chicken can be cheaper than chips. A 1.4kg Willow Farm whole chicken in Tesco costs just £2.89 (£2.07 per kg), compared to a 1.6kg bag of McCain home chips costing £3.50 (£2.19 per kg).
Connor Jackson, chief executive of the animal welfare group Open Cages, which has conducted covert investigations into broiler farms, said: “It’s very sad that these animals’ lives have become worth so little. We call them Frankenchickens. The science is clear that fast-growing chickens like the Ross 308 are doomed by their genetics. These have been engineered to grow so incredibly fast, and their bodies just cannot handle it.”
Jackson said secret filming at broiler farms supplying big supermarkets has shown birds struggling to walk or collapsing under their own weight, or dying from heart failure, and dead birds were filmed lying among the flocks. Chicken producers say they are committed to animal welfare and the overwhelming majority of birds are clean and healthy.
The modern broiler industry expanded in the US and Britain after the second world war. Large-scale breeding firms used genetic selection to produce birds with faster growth rates, efficient conversion of feed to muscle growth and a higher yield of breast meat.
More than 1.1 billion broilers are produced each year in the UK, with the Ross 308 the most popular brand. Millions are reared on farms which can house more than 200,000 birds.
A 2019 study by Aarhus University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands found a Ross 308 took 32 days to reach 1.8kg compared to a broiler developed from 1957 commercial meat chicken, which took more than 100 days to reach the same weight.
The fast-growing breeds are helping to provide a cheap and plentiful supply of meat, but in recent years research has highlighted animal welfare concerns. A report by the RSPCA in March 2020 found the fast-growing broilers had significantly higher mortality (including culls), a greater risk of being lame and were more affected by the breast muscle diseases wooden breast and white striping.
The report said: “Although current genetic selection programmes may be justified by some on the basis they result in an animal that provides a cheap, efficient source of meat and protein, there is no acceptable justification when such programmes have serious inherent flaws and are associated with poor health and welfare.”
Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester, said: “With these really rapid growth rates, it can be difficult for the heart and circulatory system to keep up with the expanding body mass. A proportion of these animals suffer from heart failure. It’s also difficult for the bones, ligaments and tendons to keep up with the rapidly increasing body mass, meaning that a proportion of these birds become severely lame.”
The animal welfare charity the Humane League UK unsuccessfully sought a judicial review against the government over the production of fast-growing chickens, which it considers is in breach of the 2007 welfare of farmed animals regulations, which state animals can only be farmed if they can be kept “without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare”. The charity said last week it intends to appeal.
Richard Griffiths, chief executive at the British Poultry Council, said farmers needed healthy chicken, but considered fast-growing breeds like the Ross 308 could be reared with good animal welfare. He said there were concerns about the pace of growth, but improved farming technology and breeding were making a difference and the adoption by the industry of slower growing breeds and reduced stocking density would have a significant environmental impact, because this woud require more feed and more space. But it could also increase the price of fresh chicken by more than 30%.
“We are a dynamic industry and we respond to consumer demand, but there are several factors involved including a cost of living crisis.”
Rob Morton, 49, of Morton’s Family Farm in Norfolk, rears the slower-growing Hubbard JA787 chicken for the Christmas market and hopes to expand production year round. “It makes a better-tasting bird because they have time to mature.”
A British Retail Consortium spokesperson said supermarkets offered customers affordable choices at high standards, including those in the Better Chicken Commitment: “All major UK supermarkets take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously.”
A spokesperson for Aviagen, which has its headquarters in Alabama, in the US, said: “Our first priority is and has always been the welfare of our birds. Welfare characteristics are a major part of modern broiler breeding, and are among the absolutely top selection priorities for all of our breeds we supply.” The spokesperson said the company bred a range of birds to suit different requirements including the Better Chicken Commitment.
Dr Tracey Jones, director of food business at Compassion in World Farming, said last week it was possible to implement the Better Chicken Commitment despite rising food prices. “It is going to be difficult, but we need to be eating less meat. We could then perhaps afford to pay for better-quality chicken.”