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Food from Thought Researchers Prove Slow-Growing Chickens More Humane in Groundbreaking Study

Raising slower-growing broiler chickens would improve the welfare of millions of birds, according to the largest and most comprehensive study of broiler chicken welfare worldwide by University of Guelph and Food from Thought researchers.

The team hopes the study will help poultry breeders and producers to select traits associated with better welfare.

This is a potentially costly move as it means less efficiency for producers and potentially higher costs for consumers, but it may end up benefitting the industry by lending support for higher animal welfare standards and improved meat quality favoured by consumers, said animal biosciences professor Tina Widowski.

“We found that, overall, many indicators of welfare are directly related to rate of growth,” said Widowski, who led a team of experts in poultry welfare, nutrition, physiology and meat science at U of G.

The researchers studied more than 7,500 chickens raised at the University’s Arkell Research Station, examining 16 genetic strains bred for four growth rates. The birds wore wearable devices like Fitbits, comparing their mobility and activity. The team created an obstacle test where they compared leg strength among the different poultry strains and monitored the birds’ use of enrichment items, as well as examined birds for foot lesions and meat quality.

The researchers found that faster growing chickens were less active and mobile with poorer foot health, indicating poorer welfare. The fastest growing birds also had breast muscle damage which can result in economic losses due to poor meat quality.

“It was the combination of high breast yield and fast rate of growth that led to poorer welfare outcomes,” said Stephanie Torrey, an adjunct faculty member with the Department of Animal Biosciences.

The researchers are currently preparing a series of peer-reviewed articles for publication within the next year.