Chickens raised for meat – called broiler chickens – are by far the most farmed animal in Canada. There was a reported 103 million birds raised in Canada in 2016 and 1.47 billion kilograms (3.25 billion pounds) of chicken meat produced (source: 2016 census).
These chickens have been bred to grow very big very quickly (especially their breast muscles), and most reach slaughter weight at just six to eight weeks old. Today, in only eight weeks’ time, a broiler chicken can put on over four times as much weight as the same strain of bird did in the 1950’s.
Broiler chickens are different from their leaner, slower growing cousin: the egg-laying chicken (also called a ‘laying hen’). By comparison, laying hens live to be 1-2 years of age before they are sent to slaughter, although the poorer quality meat from layer birds is typically only used for soups or in pet foods.
What are the main concerns for broiler chicken welfare?
Broiler chickens have been bred to grow as quickly as possible; over four times as fast as they did only 50 years ago. While faster growth means more efficient meat production and a quicker flock turnover, it comes at a painful cost to the birds. With such a focus on rapid growth, especially in the breast muscles, these top-heavy birds may get to the point where their legs can no longer support their body weight. They suffer from breast blisters, leg and feet deformities that may eventually lead to death.
Broiler chickens are often raised in large barns with artificially controlled lighting and ventilation. Unlike egg-laying hens, chickens raised for meat in Canada are never housed in cages. In other words, all broiler chickens are cage-free and free run. However, even without cages, broiler chickens are often overcrowded. High stocking densities make it almost impossible for chickens to express their instinctive, natural behaviours like scratching, dustbathing and foraging.
Many chickens die while being trucked from farm to slaughter. Death by heat exhaustion or even freezing to death are far too common. Those birds that survive the journey are hungry, thirsty, crowded, dirty and wet after the long and arduous trip. Canada’s transport laws are the worst in the western world, and millions of chickens pay the price each year. How to safely transport thousands of birds at once is an ongoing problem for conventional farms.
Support a better life for broiler chickens
The life of a broiler chicken may be short, but it can be a good life. The SPCA Certified program works with farmers to improve the lives of broiler birds. SPCA Certified standards set important requirements that farmers must meet in order to become certified, such as:
- More space for broiler chickens to explore, forage, stretch their wings and move about comfortably.
- Enrichment items like straw bales and perches to help chickens express important natural behaviour, like perching, that also help build bone and muscle strength.
- Painful physical alterations like beak and toe trimming are strictly prohibited.
Farmers who successfully meet SPCA Certified standards are able to sell their foods with the program’s stamp of approval – the little red barn label. If you or someone you know eats chicken, you can help these birds lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them by finding a SPCA Certified retailer near you.
Understand your food labels
When shopping for humane chicken, pay careful attention to the labels. Here are a few quick tips for finding the right chicken products:
- Green light: best choices for welfare.
Certifications like SPCA Certified, Certified Organic and Animal Welfare Approved are your best options for supporting higher welfare farming practices. These farms have been regularly audited to strict requirements for animal care and welfare.
- Yellow light: next best choice.
Free range chicken comes from farms where the birds have some outdoor access, weather permitting. Pasture-raised chickens receive access to a seeded outdoor pasture to forage on and explore.
- Red light: these labels are misleading!
Free run and cage-free are empty labeling claims for chicken meat since broiler chickens are never housed in cages in Canada. Free run chicken labeling claims might be an attempt to make more money from your good intentions since many people assume if the meat is not free run, it must come from birds in caged housing. Or maybe grocers and food retailers are just as confused as you! However, broiler chickens are always raised free run unless labeled free range or organic (both of which are also cage-free). You can take a stand against this misleading labeling by reporting it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Take action for farm animals
We work with the farm industry and government to encourage improvements to the lives of farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for animals by participating in any of our farm animal welfare campaigns.