GERMANY, Frankfurt. The balancing act between better husbandry conditions and economic efficiency.
Chickens are sociable birds. In the wild, they form groups of up to 20 hens and a few young cocks under the leadership of a rooster, spend their day mainly foraging together and look for a roost as high as possible at dusk - they prefer to fly up trees to do this.
In industrial animal husbandry facilities, chickens can hardly or not at all live out these and other needs. And since German consumers like chicken meat - the average per capita consumption was 15.5 kilograms in 2020 according to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture - this type of farming is the norm: in 2020, according to the Federal Statistical Office, German farmers kept just under 160 million chickens, of which only around 8.2 million were organically farmed. This corresponds to a share of just 5.2 percent.
According to the BMEL, around 92.5 million chickens were kept in Germany last year for meat production. In view of the global "red-white shift" in meat production over the past decades, farms in this country are also getting bigger and bigger: in 2003, about nine out of ten fattening farms still kept fewer than 10,000 chickens, according to the Scientific Advisory Council for Agricultural Policy at the BMEL.
Ten years later, almost 77 percent of broilers were already living on farms with 50,000 or more birds. Farms with more than 200,000 birds are also no longer a rarity. In conventional chicken fattening in Germany, three fattening methods are used, according to the Albert Schweitzer Foundation for Our Environment: In short fattening, the chickens are slaughtered after 28 to 30 days of life with a body weight of about 1.5 kg, in medium-length fattening after about 35 days with a final fattening weight of two to 2.2 kg. In long fattening, the chickens live for about 42 days and reach a final weight of 2.8 kg.
In traditional chicken fattening, about 25 birds live in one square metre. "They are kept in barren, artificially lit barns where there is practically nothing for them to do except eat and drink," complains the European Broiler Chicken Initiative. Almost 30 non-governmental organisations have joined forces there to define minimum requirements for fattening chickens, taking into account the economic framework conditions. Companies from the food industry that support the Broiler Chicken Initiative commit to implementing the initiative's criteria by 2026 at the latest. In view of the popularity of chicken meat, not only are more and more chickens being kept on individual farms, but they are also being bred for ever faster weight gain: While in 1957 an animal gained 900 grams in 56 days, in 2005 it was already 4.2 kilos. According to the broiler chicken initiative, the most common diseases and injuries caused by this breeding include bone deformities, foot pad inflammations, skin inflammations up to the development of breast blisters, cardiovascular diseases as well as diseases of the respiratory tract.
Accordingly, the frequency of antibiotic therapies in chicken fattening in Germany has been rising steadily since 2016, as figures recorded by the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety since July 2014 show. Without this treatment, many animals would not survive fattening.
This can also become a problem for human health: According to a study by the organization Germanwatch, pathogens with antibiotic resistance were found on half (51 percent) of chicken meat samples from leading poultry companies in five EU countries last year. Pathogens resistant to reserve antibiotics were even found on 35 percent of laboratory samples. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these emergency antibiotics should actually be reserved for humans and used when other antibiotics are no longer effective.
"Often up to five percent of broiler chickens die before the slaughter date even with antibiotic treatments," warns the Broiler Chicken Initiative, which also wants to reduce the need for antibiotics on European farms with the help of the better conditions for broiler chickens laid down in its list of criteria.
The initiative's self-declared aim is to alleviate the problems for chickens "as significantly as possible - against the background that the price premiums to the legal minimum must not be too high". According to this, for example, a maximum of up to 20 animals or 30 kg live weight per square metre may be kept.
If it goes after the Tierschützern of the Albert Schweitzer donation that is also still too many chickens. They demand a stocking density of less than 25 kg live weight per square metre, as this would reduce many problems in chicken fattening, according to a report by the EU's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare (SCAHAW). Incidentally, those who bear the EU organic label may keep a maximum of ten animals per square metre.
In the broiler chicken initiative agreement, farmers also commit to a minimum light level, including daylight, of 50 lux. Cages or other housing systems with several levels are prohibited.
Farmers must also use breeds or hybrid lines that meet increased welfare criteria. These are currently Hubbard Redbro, Hubbard Norfolk Black, JA757, JACY57, 787, 957, 987, Rambler Ranger, Ranger Classic, Ranger Gold and other breeds and hybrid lines that meet the criteria of the "RSPCA Broiler Breed Welfare Assessment Protocol".
Unlike conventional farming, two metre long perches must also be provided for every 1000 birds, as well as two items for pecking opportunities. As far as perches and employment opportunities are concerned, the criteria of the broiler initiative are stricter than those of the EU organic label, which do not provide for either. However, with the EU organic label, a cold scratching area must be available and beak trimming is prohibited, as is genetic engineering in the feed.
In addition, farmers in the broiler chicken initiative commit to stunning the animals before slaughter: in a controlled atmosphere using inert gases, multi-stage CO₂ systems or effective electrical stunning without hanging the head, as hanging the head causes a lot of stress and often leads to bone fractures.
Against this background, we as the German poultry industry are called upon to constantly improve our products and processes - but above all to explain them in a comprehensible and clear manner," said ZDG President Friedrich-Otto Ripke recently at the presentation of the association's new communication strategy.
For him, this is a clear example of divided consumer protection, he said. "Our range of German poultry meat is large enough to be able to directly meet the demand in the large consumer segment," advertises the BVH chairman. Especially here, foreign goods with low husbandry and animal welfare standards are increasingly used. According to Teepker, there is therefore an urgent need for an EU-wide regulation on origin labelling.