Animal welfare group clashes with European poultry trade organisation

The recent study commissioned by AVEC looked at the economic and environmental impacts incurred by the adoption of the European Chicken Commitment across the industry. Photo: Canva<span class=""> </span>
The recent study commissioned by AVEC looked at the economic and environmental impacts incurred by the adoption of the European Chicken Commitment across the industry. Photo: Canva

Animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming has hit back at claims by the Association of Poultry Producers and Poultry Trade in EU Countries (AVEC) around the additional costs linked to the European Chicken Commitment.

In a report produced by UK consultants ADAS, AVEC said fully transitioning to European Chicken Commitment standards would result in:

  • An additional production cost of 37.5% per kg of meat.
  • A 35.4% increase in water consumption, equating to an additional 12.44 million cubic metres annually.
  • A 35.5% increase in feed consumption, amounting to an additional 7.3 million tonnes.
  • A 24.4% rise in greenhouse gas emissions per kg of meat produced.
  • A reduction of 44% in the total meat produced compared to standard production methods at present in existing EU growing space (>30kg/m²).
  • The necessity to construct 9,692 new poultry houses, with an estimated cost of €8.24 billion, to maintain current production levels. 

Informed decision-making

AVEC’s president, Gert-Jan Oplaat, emphasised the importance of consumer choice and informed decision-making: “While the European Chicken Commitment aims to improve animal welfare, it is crucial to recognise that these improvements come with significant economic and environmental implications. Knowing that EU poultry consumption is predicted to grow in the EU in the next 10 years, consumers should have the choice to select higher welfare products if they wish, but it’s crucial that standard, affordable options remain available.”

Commercially and environmentally viable

But Compassion said the reported had attempted to model the economic and environmental costs of European Chicken Commitment production but had fallen short in accounting for the benefits associated with higher welfare production – including lower mortality, reduced antibiotic use and better meat quality, which could significantly offset some of these economic and environmental impacts.

It said the European Chicken Commitment is raising the bar for broiler welfare in Europe. It may impact cost and environmental measures, but when combined with successful strategies – such as feed reformulation, full carcass utilisation or innovative product development – it can be commercially and environmentally viable.

The need for enhanced welfare standards in chicken production is backed up by both scientific research and public opinion, argued Dr Tracey Jones, Global Director of Food Business, Compassion in World Farming. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a significant scientific opinion in 2023, calling for a substantial shift in production systems to better align with the welfare needs of chickens. Their recommendations cover all key European Chicken Commitment on-farm requirements (lower stocking density, slower growing breeds, enrichment, and natural light) and will inform the revision of EU animal welfare legislation, including updates to the ‘Broiler Directive’ (Council Directive 2007/43/EC) on broiler chicken protection.

Consumer concerns

Consumers are also increasingly concerned about animal welfare, as evidenced in the latest Eurobarometer (the official European Commission poll) on animal welfare (October 2023), which shows that 84% of Europeans surveyed want the welfare of farmed animals to be better protected in their country.

The European Chicken Commitment provides a framework for producers and companies to deliver better welfare for broiler chickens, enabling them to respond to consumer demand for higher welfare and to anticipate potential legislative changes in the EU.

Connecting to the European Chicken Commitment

Dr Jones added that more than 380 companies have already signed up to the European Chicken Commitment, pledging to only offer their customers higher welfare products from healthier, happier chickens. These companies aren’t merely signing; many are actively working towards implementing the set of higher welfare criteria. For example, Marks and Spencer in the UK now has 100% European Chicken Commitment-compliant fresh chicken on its shelves and is on track to convert its processed and ingredient chicken to meet the 2026 European Chicken Commitment deadline. Over 50 companies in its latest European Chicken Track are reporting on their progress towards meeting the European Chicken Commitment requirements. 

“Several EU producers have stated their willingness to supply European Chicken Commitment -compliant chicken, and some have committed to transition part of their production or even their entire production to European Chicken Commitment standards. Norwegian producer Norsk Kylling, for example, has completed its European Chicken Commitment transition, without a corresponding increase in economic or environmental costs, proving that with careful planning and execution, such a shift is achievable on a large commercial scale,” she added.

“An adjustment of practices

Dr Jones added that the journey to delivering higher welfare was not easy and there are, of course, many external challenges – not least the cost of living and climate crisis. “It is undeniable that the transition from conventional to European Chicken Commitment production typically results in an increase in production costs, by providing more space per bird – and therefore fewer birds produced per shed – and using breeds that are slower-growing, requiring more feed to produce the same amount of meat and reducing the number of production cycles per year. For the same reasons, switching to higher welfare may have a higher environmental impact. However, these negative impacts can and must be mitigated through an adjustment of practices.”

Cost-reduction strategies or the broader positive impacts

The recent study commissioned by AVEC and led by research company ADAS looked at the economic and environmental impacts incurred by the adoption of the European Chicken Commitment across the industry. While it is important to model those impacts, it is highly regrettable that the report failed to consider cost-reduction strategies or the broader positive impacts a transition to higher welfare European Chicken Commitment standards will have, including on animal and human health and welfare, she stressed. 

By excluding the breeding and processing phases, the report overlooked areas where European Chicken Commitment systems can outperform conventional systems, such as a better productivity of the parent stock, lower rejection rates in slaughterhouses and fewer carcass downgrades due to meat quality issues, leading to a reduction in food waste. In addition, European Chicken Commitment flocks typically report much lower mortality rates (while the AVEC report uses a mortality rate 0.5% lower for European Chicken Commitment flocks based on “industry views”, scientific literature reports a greater difference of up to 9% lower). 

The increase in production costs must be absorbed across the entire food chain, not just by producers or consumers, while transition periods are also crucial when modelling the economic impact of a move to European Chicken Commitment production – two key aspects which were unfortunately left out of the AVEC report.

She added it was also regrettable that the report did not make any mention of the range of cost-reduction strategies that exist to offset some of the cost increase associated with European Chicken Commitment production – such as better carcass utilisation, menu reformulation and innovative product development.

Finally, while investing in higher welfare chicken production bears a cost, signatory companies will often benefit from improved brand reputation, stronger marketing and consumer loyalty due to their higher welfare standards.

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Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist
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