Today the European Parliament almost unanimously adopted a Resolution urging the European Commission to improve the welfare of broiler chickens as a prerequisite to reduce the sector’s dependency on antibiotics, which is increasingly threatening human health.
Ninety percent of broiler chickens in the European Union currently belong to fast growing breeds that are reared under intensive conditions, with no natural light, no fresh air, no enrichments. Add to this the high stocking densities and ammonia emissions from the litter, and you get a recipe for disease, which requires the use of antimicrobials to keep the animals reasonably healthy during their very short lives (6 weeks).
So far the European Commission has conveniently deflected criticism around mainstream intensive broiler production claiming that the Broiler Directive is fit for purpose, in spite of a very disappointing EC report showing that the impact of this Directive on animal welfare is not evident. Meanwhile, antimicrobial resistance continues to increase and is becoming a real threat for public health.
The welfare of 7 billion broiler chickens comes back in full force on the European political agenda after the European Parliament today adopted an unprecedented Resolution including imperative recommendations for the Commission’s urgent action.
While recognising the importance of the poultry sector for the EU’s economy, the Parliament’s resolution affirms that animal welfare is a preventive measure in itself, as animal health and animal welfare go hand in hand. Parliamentarians acknowledged industrial poultry production leads to a rise in antimicrobial resistance. The Resolution also expresses concern over the high stocking densities allowed in many Member States based on derogations foreseen by the Broiler Directive (66% of broilers kept at stocking densities between 34-42 kg/m2, when the general rule allows maximum 33 kg/m2).
For the coming years, the European Commission is urged by the Parliament to draw up a roadmap to support and actively promote better broiler farming practices. Animal welfare should be measured with robust and validated animal based indicators for all broilers, including parent stock and hatcheries. Parliamentarians also want the Commission to promote the uptake of alternative rearing systems that use higher welfare or traditional broiler breeds, which are more robust and healthy than fast-growing breeds.
Crucially, in order for consumers to drive change and carve a higher market share for those systems, the European Parliament is also calling on the Commission to introduce method of production labelling for poultry meat and to draw up a roadmap to support competitive and sustainable poultry meat production and breeding which ensures higher welfare for broiler chickens.
Additionally, the Commission should give a mandate to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to investigate the prevalence and risk factors for antimicrobial resistant poultry bacteria that often cause food-borne infections in humans.
Finally, the Resolution instructs the Commission to ensure imported poultry meat is not produced with lower social, environmental, public health and animal welfare standards so as to safeguard the competitiveness of the EU poultry sector.
Welcoming this milestone for the animal advocacy movement, Reineke Hameleers concluded that “It’s time for decisive action to improve the welfare of broiler chickens in the EU, who are reared by the billions, hidden from the public eye, to end up in cheap meals. Only by reforming a broken system will the European Union be able to radically tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance in this sector, while at the same time addressing societal expectations on the way in which we should treat animals reared for food”.