Farm Forward and associated farmer Frank Reese advocate for turning back the clock to before the industry began using hybrid breeding techniques altogether. They believe that standard bred and heritage chickens, which live active lives outdoors and reach a smaller market weight over about 16 weeks, compared to the commercial industry average of six to seven weeks, should be the baseline all breeds are compared to.
“We must eliminate hybrid genetics that cause animals to grow too big too quickly or lay too many eggs, in favor of animals bred in accordance with Dr. Bernard Rollin’s Principle of Conservation of Welfare: newer breeds should have at least the same level of welfare as previous breeds,” Farm Forward executive director Andrew deCoriolis wrote in a 2020 blog post. “Until industry takes these steps, Farm Forward calls upon people to divest from this corrupt industry by refusing to buy its products.”
But heritage chickens are expensive to produce and are raised on pasture in non-industrial systems, and the groups aligned with the BCC believe advocates should try to introduce improvements that the dominant system will be willing to adopt.
GAP’s five-tier certification system already includes requirements related to space and enrichments for chickens at every level, but in the past only required slower-growing breeds at top tiers, in pastured systems. Over the last five years, it has been working to update the standards to include slower-growing breeds across the board.
“It became very apparent that while there were bits and pieces of science out there, putting all of the bits together was going to be really difficult,” said Anne Malleau, GAP’s executive director.
To get clearer answers, the organization funded a study at the University of Guelph in Ontario in which researchers compared 16 different breeds with varying growth rates on outcomes including mobility, physiology, and mortality. GAP then assembled a multidisciplinary technical working group to develop a high-welfare breed protocol using the results of the study. “Our first list will be breeds from the study,” she explained, and then companies and producers that want their breeds approved for use in GAP-certified systems will be able to apply for their breed to be evaluated using the new protocol.
GAP-certified breeds will then be eligible for use by companies that have signed on to the Better Chicken Commitment, and the commitment gives them until 2026 to do it, since the industry is now set up for only fast-growing breeds and the process of creating enough stock of the higher welfare breeds will take time. At Perdue, animal scientists have been doing their own research on slower-growing breeds in an effort to prepare. Stewart-Brown said that they were working to answer several questions, such as whether the birds would do better with different feed and need more or less overall, how customers will react to differences in the meat, and how to fairly compensate growers who would have to switch from producing around five flocks a year to three and a half.
The economic concerns for farmers are significant—particularly in an industry that has long faced tight margins and restrictive contracts that benefit the companies at the expense of farmers. Raising fewer birds in the same barns would typically mean lower compensation, but Stewart-Brown said Perdue is paying growers more per pound for birds raised to meet the Better Chicken Commitment standards. (The company did not provide an exact number, but a spokesperson said that if Perdue places less chickens than “normal” with a farmer to allow for more space, “we figure out what the ‘loss’ to their regular income would be and pay extra; what we call ‘space pay.’”)
Perdue has been working to improve the animal welfare in its operations for about a decade, as a result of pressure from advocacy groups, Stewart-Brown said. Today, Perdue says 40 percent of its farms now meet the requirements for more space (6 pounds per square foot) and 26 percent include enrichments that are required by the standards.
“We are still consuming an unsustainable amount of chicken …”
Stewart-Brown noted that the company is paying for these upgrades, although in the past, poultry companies have typically foisted those costs onto contract farmers. For instance, over the past 10 years Perdue increased the number of barns with windows from 11 percent to 52 percent in conjunction with animal welfare groups’ input. While the company said it would pay for those changes, records provided to Civil Eats show some contract growers were required to pay the company back through significant reductions in their income over time. In response, Stewart-Brown said those contracts were being misinterpreted and that the company pays the cost upfront and then initiates a process of “turning over ownership” that includes extra pay to cover the installments farmers pay and only fully shifts the cost of the windows onto farmers if they choose to leave Perdue within three years of the installation.
Regardless of who pays for upgrades, when leading poultry companies point to incremental improvements like these as success stories, critics argue that programs like the BCC amount to little more than window dressing, since most chickens still spend their lives inside in an unnatural environment, contract farmers still struggle to stay afloat, and the other impacts of industrial chicken production on surrounding communities remain.
Enforcement, Policy, and the Bigger Picture
Groups like Farm Forward have accused animal welfare groups that call for small changes to industrial systems of “humanewashing,” and have been critical of GAP’s higher-welfare breed project. But while the BCC is narrow in scope, Chloe Waterman, senior program manager of Friends of the Earth’s Climate-Friendly Food program, said some of its components could have broader impacts. “Insofar as it also helps to contribute to reducing stocking densities, that’s where you start to see some of the environmental benefits as well, because part of what makes any confined animal production so harmful for the environment is … the concentration of waste,” she said.
As an incremental step, Waterman said she saw the commitment as meaningful, but in the context of larger food system transformation to address the urgency of climate change, much bigger changes to chicken are needed.