HEALTH: Where did the chicken on your plate come from?

Broilers reared en masse in a farm. PHOTO/Courtesy.

By Aggrey Omboki and Nyang’au Araka

When you enjoy your favourite meal of chicken in a typical big brand restaurant, you may not think about how it was reared or slaughtered.

The chicken could endanger your life by infecting you with diseases or building up antimicrobial resistance in your body.

A report entitled The Pecking Order, 2021; World Animal Protection now says you should be concerned about the conditions in which chickens are raised.

This is because the welfare of poultry and livestock plays a major role in determining the quality and health of products on our plates.

“Many big brand restaurants are denying billions of birds the chance to grow at a healthy rate or behave naturally.

Profit motives are driving cruelty and suffering, and this needs to end,” says Dr Victor Yamo, who is the animals rights lobby’s Africa Farming Campaigns Manager.

The report released on August 4, 2021 paints a gloomy and disturbing picture of modern large scale poultry farms as a place of intense distress and suffering for the birds whose tender, tasty meat we love to feast on.

It also indicates that most of the chicken served at these well-known quick service restaurants comes from “chickens that live in crowded, barren environments with wet caked litter, poor hygiene and sanitation”.

This sorry state of affairs “leads to lameness and skin lesions” among the chicken.

“Shockingly, most companies show no inclination to improve standards, so consumers are unwittingly buying meat from chickens that are subject to unnecessary cruelty and suffering,” the World Animal Protection press statement reads.

Equally disturbing is the tendency to pump the chicken full of antibiotics for illnesses that can be avoided by rearing them in more comfortable conditions.

“Intensive farming methods are also increasingly relying on the routine use of antibiotics as a quick fix solution to keeping stressed and sick animals alive,” reads the report.

The practice can lead to the spread of superbugs, which are bacteria, viruses, parasite and fungi strains that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other drugs commonly used to treat the infections they cause.

Superbugs include resistant bacteria that can cause urinary tract infections, skin infections and pneumonia.

“In this process, human health is also being endangered. This overuse of antibiotics is fueling antimicrobial resistance and the spread of superbugs or super-resistant bacteria that kill over 700,000 people a year worldwide,” the document adds.

Most major restaurant brands, says the lobby, are not adhering to the same animal welfare standards they have committed to apply in their home countries.

The report found that global fast food restaurants with branches in Africa are lagging behind in animal welfare.

Kenya was ranked last out of 14 countries listed in the rankings.

According to the One Health expert, the report was a ranking of the dominant fast food brands to evaluate compliance with animal welfare principles.

“We started with the 8 top fast food brands to determine which ones apply the animal welfare principles in the sourcing of chicken for sale. In 2022, we will expand the rankings to include suppliers, retailers and supermarkets,” said Dr Yamo.

To produce this report, World Animal Protection looked at publicly available commitments made by 8 major restaurant brands to uphold animal welfare in their poultry supply chains.

The lobby relied on corporate commitment policies that clearly state how important the welfare of chickens is to the company.

It also studied company objectives, targets made to improve chicken welfare and when they will be achieved.

Of the 8 companies listed in the ranking, 5 are found in Kenya. Burger King, Subway and Dominos scored 0 points. Pizza Hut and KFC scored just 6 percent, due to the policy of Yum Brands, which is the firm that owns them.

KFC was ranked first in Europe due to its commitment to animal welfare. This comes after the restaurant giant signed the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) in 2019.

Dr Yamo however lamented the failure by KFC and other leading brands to apply the same high standards in Africa, terming it a sad case of “double standards”.

“KFC has once again shown leadership in 8 countries across Europe since signing up to the BCC in 2019, which will improve the welfare of millions of chickens. But in a disappointing turn of events, the company has not applied those commitments made in Europe within its African subsidiaries,” says Dr Yamo.

He regretted the trend of internationally acclaimed brands enforcing animal welfare policies in Europe but turning a blind eye to the production of chicken stock in their African subsidiaries.

“Nandos, which is an African brand, has made commitments to animal welfare policies in its European branches but is yet to apply the same in Africa. Burger King has also made these commitments in certain markets, but not in Africa. Dominos has also committed itself to keeping broilers out of cages but has left Africa out,” said Dr Yamo.

Internationally accepted animal welfare policies for poultry include proper stocking density, enrichment of living conditions and humane slaughter of poultry.

“Poultry should be fed well, given enough space, clean water, a clean environment and freedom from discomfort,” Dr Yamo said.

Stocking density refers to the maximum weight of birds that can be reared in an enclosure, which is 30 kilograms per square meter.

In this system, the use of cages or multi-tier systems is discouraged.

Another vital pillar is enrichment, which refers to specific environmental standards which must be met including lighting, provision of perches and pecking substrates for the birds.

Dr Yamo says poor welfare could also result in higher operating costs for poultry farmers in terms of medical expenses and deaths of birds.

“Our estimates show that a typical large scale poultry farmer could be losing between Ksh22, 000 to Ksh150, 000 in the broiler production cycle which is typically 8 weeks. In the 6 cycles that will run in a year, the loss will be between Ksh176,000 to Ksh1.2 million, meaning that neglecting animal welfare could be expensive to the farmer in the long run,” he said.

Dr Yamo urged the various restaurant brands, supermarket chains, suppliers and retailers to commit themselves to animal welfare policies

“We hope producers will start making these commitments to following the animal welfare protocols. These include the humane slaughter of chicken,” he said.

He is also calling for the audit of poultry producers by impartial outside inspectors.

“For these protocols to work effectively, we insist on third party audits of production cycles. This is because the producers cannot objectively audit themselves,” he said.

He pointed to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which is thought by some scientists to have originated from bats sold at the wildlife meat market in Wuhan, China as a lesson that we all need to learn in the way we produce and consume meat.

“COVID-19 has taught us that the welfare of animals and human health is interlinked. There should be no business as usual,” Dr Yamo said.

“As more people take an active interest in the ethics of their food, more companies are willing to act. Now is the time for real change to happen and companies that fail to move with the demands of the market are not only causing misery to millions of animals but are also risking their reputation,” he said.

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