HC Deb 12 March 1996 vol 273 cc804-6 4.36 pm
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect the health and welfare of broiler chickens kept in indoor husbandry systems. The UK chicken flock comprises two separate flocks. One is kept to lay eggs. Most of those birds are kept in battery cages and their welfare problems are relatively well known. In the other, much larger, flock, chickens known as broilers are reared for their meat.

In Britain, we rear over 700 million broiler chickens a year, yet they are the only one of the UK's major factory-farmed animals to have no specific laws to protect them. The Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994 contain detailed provisions on pigs, calves and battery hens. On broiler chickens, however, the law is largely silent despite the severity of the health and welfare problems encountered by the birds.

The vast majority of broiler chickens are reared intensively indoors. They are kept in huge, windowless sheds that often hold up to 30,000 birds. The sheds are so overcrowded that, as the birds grow bigger, one can barely see the floors, so thickly are they carpeted with chickens. There are fears that the maximum stocking density recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in its welfare code is frequently exceeded. To solve that problem, the Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended in its 1992 report on broilers that the maximum stocking density should be laid down in legal, binding regulations, rather than being left, as at present, to an unenforceable welfare code. To date, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has failed to act on that recommendation. No maximum stocking density is laid down by law. I hope that my Bill will remedy that omission.

The worst welfare problems, however, stem from the broiler industry's use of selective breeding methods and rich diets to get chickens to reach their slaughter weights in double-quick time. Today's broiler chickens have been bred to reach their slaughter weights in only six weeks. That is twice as fast as 30 years ago. It is the muscle that grows quickly—the part that is sold for meat. However, their legs fail to keep pace and cannot properly support the overgrown body. As a result, each year millions of chickens suffer from painful, sometimes crippling, leg disorders.

Academic research, which assessed the walking ability of broilers, suggests that as many as 180 million chickens a year are suffering from those painful problems. Indeed, the Farm Animal Welfare Council's working group found leg problems of varying degrees of severity on almost every farm that it visited. In the worst cases, chickens are incapable of sustained walking and can move only with the help of their wings or by crawling on their shanks.

Professor John Webster, head of the veterinary school at the university of Bristol, describes those broilers as suffering from a long list of painful bone and joint disorders. He adds that the chronic pain suffered by many of them must constitute the single most extreme example of man's inhumanity to another sentient creature". Hon. Members should know that broiler chickens reared in Britain are growing too fast not only for their legs, but for their hearts and lungs. Many birds develop congestive heart failure, which causes ascites—a pooling of body fluids in the abdomen. About 7 million broilers die of ascites each year before reaching their slaughter age of six weeks.

Professor Webster also said: It is absolutely not right that animals in the first weeks of their life should be experiencing heart disease; it is absolutely not right that animals in the first weeks of their life should be crippled. That is something with which I agree wholeheartedly.

A significant number of broilers suffer from painful breast blisters, ulcerated feet and hock burns. Those injuries arise because, owing to leg weakness, many birds spend long periods squatting down on the litter. That is often contaminated with droppings and prolonged contact with it can lead to the injuries to which I have referred. Wood shavings are the material most commonly used as litter in broiler sheds. After two or three weeks, however, often there are hardly any wood shavings left; what remains is largely solid poultry manure. Improved litter management is a key factor in reducing the incidence of breast blisters, ulcerated feet and hock burns. My Bill includes a requirement that litter is kept clean and dry.

Regular inspections are essential if acceptable standards of broiler health and welfare are to be achieved. Indeed, the Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that a law should be brought in requiring all flocks to be inspected twice a day. My Bill includes such a requirement. I fear that, at present, the absence of adequate inspections means that many diseased, injured or dying birds are not being identified as such and, as a result, are given no appropriate attention or treatment.

So extreme are the health problems of today's chicken broilers that if, instead of being slaughtered at six weeks, they were allowed to live on, 80 per cent. would die before reaching the age of puberty at 18 weeks. That presents a massive problem to one particular sector of the broiler industry. The broiler breeders—the birds whose role it is to produce the subsequent generations—must remain fit and healthy into adulthood so that they can breed. If fed normally many would, as I have said, die before reaching puberty. Those that survive would suffer from reduced fertility.

To address those problems, the parent stock—the breeders—are fed on restricted rations to slow down their growth rate. One study found that broiler breeders ate only a quarter to a half of what they would have eaten if given free access to food. The researchers concluded that restricted-fed broiler breeders are chronically hungry, frustrated and stressed. There can be no justification for keeping birds in a state of constant hunger. My Bill requires broilers to be given sufficient food to prevent hunger.

Further problems arise during what the industry calls harvesting, which is when the birds are removed from the sheds and packed into crates ready for the journey to the slaughterhouse. Teams of catchers depopulate the sheds at great speed, carrying four or even more chickens in each hand. The birds are held by just one leg, with rough handling being commonplace. The extent of the brutality involved in the catching process was highlighted in a Bristol university study that examined the cause of death in broilers that were dead on arrival at the slaughterhouse. Just over half had died from heart failure. The researchers presumed that, for those birds, the stress of catching, loading and transporting had been simply too much for them to cope with. Some 35 per cent. had died from traumatic injuries, with a dislocated hip being the most common injury. That was associated with profuse haemorrhaging and in about one third of the cases the femur—a major bone—had actually been forced into the chicken's abdominal cavity. The researchers suggested that catching and carrying large birds by one leg is conducive to dislocation of the hip. Clearly, the catching process is not just stressful and frightening for the chickens, but in many cases leads to injury and even death. My Bill requires catching to be carried out in such a manner as to avoid injury to the birds.

I believe that if people knew of the suffering experienced by broiler chickens in Britain there would be a public outcry no less strong than that occasioned by the export of calves. Urgent reforms are needed to deal with the very serious health and welfare problems experienced by chicken broilers. My Bill would require the broiler industry in Britain to take a much more responsible approach in the rearing of its chickens. I hope that, one day, the Bill will stand as a benchmark for this House and for the remainder of Europe.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Tony Banks, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Bill Etherington, Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr. Eric Martlew, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Eric Clarke, Mr. Gary Waller, Mr. Terry Lewis and Mr. Don Dixon.