Several years ago, people in the Netherlands learned about the plight of what animal advocates dubbed “exploding chickens.” Known in the industry as “broiler chickens,” these birds are bred to grow so quickly that they reach slaughter weight in just six weeks. Such rapid growth leads to debilitating leg disorders that make it painful to walk, disproportionate heart and lung development and muscle myopathies, such as woody breast syndrome (hardened muscles, which prevent the birds from righting themselves if they fall over).

Selectively bred from the fastest-growing birds over many generations, the birds essentially hatch to suffer, growing into bodies so obstructive they’re like cages. The birds struggle to walk as they grow larger and larger and can do little more than sit and eat, crowded into filthy sheds, often suffering from ammonia burns on their feet, legs and breasts, the result of standing and lying in their own waste. In a single dimly lit shed, thousands of chickens are routinely crammed together such that there is insufficient space for each animal and little opportunity for these inquisitive creatures to express their natural behavior.

In progress for improved welfare, the Dutch successfully advocated to remove this kind of chicken from grocery stores in the Netherlands. But elsewhere, any progress for these rapidly growing birds has been painfully slow. And when it comes to any welfare concern for chickens, the scale of such suffering is huge: More chickens are raised and killed for meat than any other land species, with over 75 billion slaughtered globally. 

However, there’s hope for improving broiler chicken welfare through the Better Chicken Commitment. Working alongside other respected animal welfare organizations, the Humane Society of the United States initiated the formation of the Better Chicken Commitment. An agreed-upon set of science-based standards to improve broiler chicken welfare, the BCC stipulates key requirements for higher welfare practices such as more space for birds, natural light and environmental enrichment, as well as slower-growing genetics and improved slaughter conditions. There are Better Chicken projects in the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Brazil and for Australia/New Zealand. If more supermarkets and food retailers signed up to the BCC to ensure these welfare standards across their supply chain, it could have a transformative impact on the entire industry. 

We are pushing the industry to improve animal welfare throughout chickens’ lives, which means intervening even before birds hatch: Fast-growing breeds should be replaced with slower-growing breeds who do not suffer the same ailments as those who were bred for quick growth. The challenge is that it costs more to keep slower-growing chickens and to give them more space (which means fewer birds in the barn and less income from each flock); many retailers are reluctant to pass this cost on to consumers, which is preventing more rapid adoption of better standards.