Fast Food and Grocery Giants Promise to Sell ‘Better’ Chicken—Is It Enough? | Civil Eats

Fast Food and Grocery Giants Promise to Sell ‘Better’ Chicken—Is It Enough?

Farm grass field with chicken in foreground on poatrol with trees and barns in the background under and overcast sky.

This summer, it seemed like things might be looking up for the more than 9 billion chickens that get fattened up quickly inside crowded barns before being processed into fried chicken sandwiches and crispy wings in the U.S. each year.

Animal welfare organization the Humane League announced that in August alone, four grocery chains—Sprouts Farmers Market, Kroger, Natural Grocers, and Giant Eagle—had signed on to the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), a pledge to adopt a set of standards meant to improve the lives of the animals raised for meat sold in their stores.

In the same month, the animal advocacy group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) formed a working group with seven large food sellers, including Shake Shack, Target, and Aramark, to help the businesses work toward adopting the same standards within the next few years. And the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) released the preliminary results of a study that is being used to create a new protocol for its certification (which is one component of the BCC) requiring slower-growing breeds with better welfare outcomes.

That development was particularly significant, because hybrid birds developed in the late 20th century have been bred to grow to double the market weight in half the amount of time compared to chickens raised in the 1930s. That fast growth, coupled with an emphasis on large breasts, can make the birds unhealthy and limit their mobility; animal advocates have long noted that shifting to different breeds would be the most foundational change for improving welfare in the industry.

While iterations of the BCC have existed for several years, this new momentum brings the usual questions: Do the standards it asks of companies represent meaningful change? Will fast food and grocery corporations honor their commitments—or will they kick the can down the road in the hope that public attention will shift before their commitments come due?

“Do I think it’s meaningful? Yes. Do I think it’s enough? Absolutely not,” said Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law program at Vermont Law School. “This is not anything that is going to actually ensure good welfare for these animals, but there is such an utter lack of legal requirements and such horrific treatment that this will bring the minimum floor up a little bit.”

The animal advocates who have been working to convince food service executives to sign on to the agreement see even small changes within the industrial system as a win, as they say those tweaks alleviate the suffering of so many animals. Others pushing for changes to chicken farming believe the focus should be on changing those systems entirely, with a recognition of animal welfare as one piece of a broader puzzle that also encompasses environmental justice concerns and climate impact.

What Is the Better Chicken Commitment?

Over the past 50 years, in addition to breeding chickens for lightning-fast growth and feed efficiency, the poultry industry has begun raising them in more concentrated ways on larger farms and sped up processing to produce as much chicken as possible at lower and lower prices. As a result, Americans now eat more chicken than any other meat (or fish). While per-capita red meat consumption has fallen compared to highs in the 1970s, the average American now eats 97 pounds of chicken per year, about two and a half times the rate in 1970.

Changes associated with the industrializing and scaling up of production have had significant negative impacts on the environment, surrounding communities, and the chickens themselves. In response, a group of animal welfare organizations with slightly differing goals began working together in 2014 to put pressure on food companies to improve the welfare of the chickens in their supply chains. According to Jeff Doyle, the U.S. head of food business at CIWF, the groups realized that their organizations were approaching corporations with a wide array of demands, and some were counterproductive.

“What we really wanted to do was try to align behind an agreed-upon set of criteria . . . so that when we go to companies, they’re not hearing 10 different things from 10 different groups,” explained Doyle. “We were trying to be proactive and to draw lines where we think there are some changes needed, but [in ways] that are still economically viable for these companies.”

In 2019, the groups finalized the BCC around five basic criteria. By 2024, the signing companies would have to require their chicken suppliers to prohibit cages and give birds slightly more space than the industry standard, provide “enrichments” for the birds including litter and lighting improvements, switch to a slaughter system called controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS), and conduct third-party auditing to show they were meeting all the requirements. By 2026, they would also have to switch to slower growing, more humane chicken breeds.

The BCC also offers a kind of shortcut version of the standards in which companies can choose GAP certification (at any level), which already meets, and in many cases exceeds, the requirements.

To date, about 200 companies have adopted versions of the commitment, including major fast-food chains such as Burger King and Popeyes. But unlike certifications operated by a single organization or a government agency, the BCC is not overseen by any one governing body. Different groups secure commitments from companies independently, and how those companies “commit” varies, making it difficult for a consumer to know what it really means when a grocer declares they’ve signed on.

For example, the four supermarkets that the Humane League announced came on board in August actually agreed to apply the standards only to specific brands to varying degrees and along different timelines. Sprouts said it would commit to enrichments by 2024, more space by 2025, and CAS by 2026, but it made no solid promise to adopt slower-growing breeds. Kroger also left breeds out of its commitment and promised only to have 50 percent of the chicken for its Simple Truth Natural and Simple Truth Organic brands compliant on the other factors by 2024.

What Does ‘Better Chicken’ Really Mean for Birds and Farmers?

“What we’re asking is to raise the baseline . . . and the criteria is based around what can make the most impact now,” said Vicky Bond, a veterinarian and animal welfare specialist at the Humane League. Bond said changing processing systems that are stressful for chickens and sometimes result in the animals being conscious at the time of slaughter is key. “[CAS] is overall a much better and more reliable system for more humane slaughter,” she said.

Bruce Stewart-Brown is the senior vice president of technical services and innovation at Perdue, one of the main suppliers for companies looking to adopt the BCC. He agreed that CAS is a more humane system for processing for multiple reasons but said it’s also the biggest barrier to a greater percentage of the company’s chicken supply meeting the standards.

“It’s expensive, and there is a limitation on the number of systems that can [be installed at processing plants] in any given year. There are maybe three different companies making CAS systems,” said Stewart-Brown. Currently, he added, only 10 percent of Perdue’s chicken supply comes from birds slaughtered using CAS.

The other component that would represent a significant change for industrial chicken producers is the gradual move away from fast-growing breeds. Fast growth and enlarged breasts in today’s commercial chickens are linked to decreased mobility, skeletal abnormalities, skin lesions, and higher mortality rates. But animal welfare advocates don’t necessarily agree among themselves as to what constitutes a “higher welfare” breed.

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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.

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.

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“We are still consuming an unsustainable amount of chicken, so we think the Better Chicken Commitment . . . needs to be paired with a ‘Less Chicken Commitment.’”

And the question arises as to the value of a corporate “commitments” more broadly. On one hand, food companies regularly vow to end practices like deforestation and antibiotic use in beef and then make little progress on actually doing so. However, in poultry, corporate commitments have contributed to a massive movement away from the use of medically important antibiotics. And while cage-free egg commitments have not been as universally successful, they have still led to a significant shift.

“We are seeing a huge rise in cage-free production now compared to when that advocacy started,” Waterman said. “I think what helped is the way in which these corporate commitments have worked in tandem with policy change. Part of the value of these corporate commitments is that it demonstrates to policymakers that this is achievable . . . that it’s not going to crash our food system and cause food businesses to go out of business.”

For Vermont Law School’s Winders, the real problem stems from the fact that the legal protections for animals that apply to other industries like research and pet breeding don’t extend to farms.

“[The Better Chicken Commitment] is an attempt to fill a legal void, and because the suffering is so immense, we should be doing everything we can to try to fill that void,” she said. “But it’s never going to be enough. There needs to be meaningful legal protections, because even with these corporate commitments, there are hurdles in terms of enforcement.”

If a company adopts the GAP version of the BCC, its suppliers will be subject to audits every 15 months. Otherwise, third-party auditing is technically required, but since the commitment is not run by one organization, there’s no central authority keeping track of all the audits.

In a 2020 report on BCC progress, Compassion in World Farming proposed a reporting framework in which organizations would ask companies to publicly disclose what percentage of their chicken meets the overall standard and each component of it, as well as whether they have been audited and by whom. But even that framework would be voluntary.

And as the requirements for higher-welfare breeds kick in over the next several years, it seems like a stretch to imagine the industry’s biggest players sacrificing enough income and efficiency to meet their commitments.

None the less, GAP’s Malleau is optimistic that—even with its piecemeal execution—the Better Chicken Commitment will eventually deliver on its promise, especially when it comes to better breeds. “There are already 200 companies in North America that have signed on and there are all of these global initiatives, with big food service companies coming together to figure out how to do it,” she said. “So, I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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