RSPCA to intervene in support of judicial review on intensively bred chickens

RSPCA to intervene in support of judicial review on intensively bred chickens

The RSPCA will seek to assist the court by contributing evidence and arguments in a potential landmark judicial review challenging Defra over the legality of fast-growing broiler chickens, the charity announced today.

The animal welfare charity has long held serious concerns about meat chicken breeds which have been genetically selected to grow so fast that they suffer from serious health and welfare issues. 

Now the RSPCA has been given permission from Mr Justice Bourne to act as an ‘intervener’ in the judicial review being brought by The Humane League UK at the High Court in May by providing evidence on the welfare issues of fast-growing breeds of chickens, and lack of clarity of the animal welfare laws.

The case challenges the UK Government on the legality of allowing the use of genetically selected fast-growing breeds of meat chickens. This challenge is based on the RSPCA’s Eat. Sit. Suffer. Repeat: The life of a typical meat chicken report, which was published in 2020, highlighted the welfare issues associated with meat chicken breeds that have been selected to grow fast. 

RSPCA research demonstrated that faster-growing breeds of meat chickens are more likely to die or need to be culled due to ill health, develop sores on their legs, and struggle to walk properly. They reach their average slaughter weight in just 35 days after hatching - only a little longer than the time spent in the egg. Such rapid growth rates can contribute to other health problems such as ascites (heart failure) and sudden death syndrome (heart attacks), whilst previous research showed that many of them (approx 30%) are likely to experience pain from leg and foot issues.

Kate Parkes, an RSPCA poultry expert, said:

We have long had serious concerns about the welfare of fast-growing breeds of meat chickens. The strain of growing at such a rate to fulfil the demand for cheap, readily available chicken, means that by the end of their short lives, these fast-growing birds are less able to exhibit their natural behaviours such as foraging, dust bathing and perching and instead spend most of their lives sitting and eating, less able to move around.

“The RSPCA is pleased that we’ve been granted permission to act as an intervener in this groundbreaking case as our research clearly shows the welfare issues associated with these breeds are unacceptable.

A recent RSPCA survey in partnership with the Scottish SPCA - the Animal Kindness Index, revealed that over a quarter of people either don’t think chickens are sentient or don’t know that they are.*

Kate added:

Sadly, this misunderstanding could be why practices like this have so far gone unchallenged. Science tells us that chickens are indeed sentient and rather than sitting still we know that they like to be active, and carry out natural behaviours such as dust bathing and perching. They are also naturally inquisitive and like to explore their environment by pecking at objects and scratching the ground.

The use of fast-growing breeds of chicken is not permitted under the RSPCA welfare standards (and therefore the RSPCA Assured scheme - the charity’s ethical food label and farm assurance scheme) due to the welfare issues involved.

Many farmers also agree there are significant benefits to rearing slower-growing higher welfare breeds of chickens and one of those is Mark Gorton, managing director at Traditional Norfolk Poultry.

He said:

The welfare of our birds is of the utmost importance. Nothing gives us more pleasure than seeing the chickens exploring the habitat we provide and playing with the environmental enrichment carefully placed around their living space.

We have found that the slow-growing breeds of chickens we grow are best adapted to making the most of what we provide as they seem to have an abundance of energy which allows their natural inquisitive instincts to really show which is what we are trying to achieve. 

It is not unusual to see all of the perches we provide completely full of birds or to see young chickens running around outside chasing insects.

This is in stark contrast to fast-growing breeds of chickens whose accelerated weight means they often struggle to stand towards the end of their lives.

The RSPCA supports the Better Chicken Commitment, which encourages supermarkets and retailers to commit to raising welfare standards across their supply chain of chicken by 2026. The campaign is dedicated to improving the lives of millions of broiler chickens by ending the use of faster-growing breeds of chicken.

Further information on the Better Chicken Commitment and the Judicial Review is available online.