Farm Animal Welfare Council
   
 
 


 

The Following is the text of a letter, dated 25 October 2000, to Mr Elliot Morley MP concerning broiler leg health.

As you and I agreed following your letter to me of 23rd May, I am writing to let you know the outcome of the Council’s discussion last week on the complex issue of broiler leg health.

Perhaps I should start by briefly recalling the relevant history. In is 1992 report on the welfare of broilers, FAWC declared the level of leg problems to be unacceptable and considered it the industry’s responsibility to achieve a significant reduction in the number and severity of leg problems. The British Chicken Association, representing the broiler industry, accepted this challenge by establishing in 1993 a wide-scale survey of broiler production companies to demonstrate that progress was being made, as reflected in the "gait scores" recorded on numerous samples of birds over a five-year period. In the event the industry survey was one of the largest of its kind with some 25,000 birds from nearly 200 cohorts gait scored in total. The study was finally completed in June 2000 and the five successive datasets that had been gathered were subjected to a brief independent statistical analysis. Representatives of the industry presented their findings to the FAWC Poultry Issues Working Group in July where a full discussion took place.

In Council’s consideration of the matter on 12th October we recognised at the outset that the industry deserves credit for accepting its central role in improving broiler welfare, and in carrying the study through to completion in a period of considerable economic and structural adjustment. The 1992 FAWC report has caused the industry to focus attention on the leg health problem, and it claims to have pursued a wide range of genetic, nutritional, housing and management changes designed to improve the situation.

In the light of this, we are severely disappointed to note that the survey findings, as presented, provide no convincing evidence that measurable improvements in leg health have been achieved over the seven years of the study. (There are small numerical reductions in the overall average percentage of the ‘unacceptable’ gait scores, but the independent analysis has shown these not to be statistically significant.) This is difficult to explain given the industry’s efforts directed at the problem. It is clearly not sufficient merely to accept that the situation has not got any worse.

FAWC aims to draw its conclusions on the basis of scientific data and empirical evidence, and we believe the industry survey might have much more useful information to reveal. The large amount of data collected shows considerable variation in gait scores between different farms, and from years to year, but the results have been presented only in the summary form of overall industry averages for each year. We feel it imperative that the industry should undertake a full analysis of its dataset, the variation within it examined, and its underlying reasons explored. Furthermore, the analysis deserves to be published so that all interested parties can critically assess its conclusions. It could be an important finding of the survey that some farms consistently succeed in achieving significantly lower gait scores that others. This should enable successful best practice to be identified and the information passed on to producers with a higher incidence and severity of leg problems. This was an objective originally declared when the study was initiated, and could be a valuable contribution to improvement in the industry.

A further objective of the study originally was to undertake post-mortem examination of severely lame birds, but this practice was discounted early in the study and so unfortunately there is no information to allow poor gait scores to be related to their underlying causes. It could be, as some have suggested, that the pathology of leg weakness has changed over the years, and there is a clear need to review the evidence in this area.

The industry representatives have emphasised what they consider to be the low average incidence of leg problems in their survey, which contrasts markedly with far higher figures reported by Bristol University researchers, the recent study in Denmark and the observations of FAWC in 1992. The existence of these conflicting figures inevitably creates confusion and hampers an informed debate on the way ahead. Because it would assess the sampling frame and characteristics of the data recorded, the full statistical analysis of the industry survey we have asked for should cast more light on this aspect of its results.

But the continuing uncertainty highlights the urgent need for a definitive study on the current state of leg health in UK broiler production. We would therefore urge you to immediately initiate (with a view to obtaining results over the next 9-12 months) a well-founded survey of broiler production units. If it is to gain universal credibility, this needs to be based on a fully representative sample drawn from the entire population of units according to relevant statistical criteria, and to be undertaken by independent researchers.

This study could draw on existing methods for measuring leg problems, including gait scores but also abattoir examination of leg pathology, recording of other information relating to bird welfare (ascites, malformations, etc) and relating these observations to housing, management and other production conditions in the survey units. Until this work is done, and the results effectively applied, there will remain widespread discomfort, both in FAWC and within the wider public, concerning this fundamental aspect of the welfare of the broiler chicken.

In the meantime, we believe there is a need to change the current perception of, and response to, broiler leg problems within the welfare enforcement framework. Application of welfare codes should be rigorously pursued through inspections, and existing legislation should be effectively enforced on farms, in transport and at slaughterhouses. This might encourage poultry producers to slaughter birds a few days earlier (at a lighter weight) which could markedly reduce the occurrence of leg health problems. Retailers must also be made fully aware of the welfare implications of their demand for birds at the current marketed weights and encouraged to seek the benefits they could claim from providing consumers with slightly lighter/younger birds. I hope you would be ready to join me in seeking opportunities to press this point.

In conclusion, I can only reinforce the concern first expressed in 1992 over the real welfare challenge of lameness in broilers. In this respect it is not the sample numerical level of incidence averaged across the whole industry that is relevant. As with all welfare problems, it is the instances where unacceptable standards are occurring that are the concern, and we believe these incidences are still far too common in relation to broiler leg health. Immediate action must be taken to identify these unacceptable situations, their causes examined and actions initiated to ensure they are improved.

In order to ensure that our proposals can be moved forward in a constructive fashion, I propose a brief period of grace to permit an action plan to be developed before the recommendations in this letter are made public. Nevertheless, Council is anxious to make our views known openly, and we therefore propose to publish this letter on our website in mid-December. I trust this will allow time for all concerned to contribute to this action plan.


APPENDIX

Since communicating our recommendations to Mr Morley we have held discussions both with the poultry industry and with MAFF to understand how they propose to implement the actions identified by us. We summarise our understanding of their responses as follows:

  • Poultry industry

The industry, through BPMF, has confirmed that the survey data will be independently and comprehensively analysed by a Professor of veterinary epidemiology and his analysis will be published. In addition, the industry has readily agreed to co-operate with future studies of leg weakness which may arise from our recommendations, the outlines of which are already being discussed.

  • MAFF

We have been assured that MAFF will be positively addressing enforcement of welfare codes and current regulations through targeting farms where problems exist. They will draw on data from flock records to effectively identify such farms.

MAFF also made a proposal to conduct a major case control study, which will aim to identify the factors which tend to be associated with flocks which experience leg weakness problems. Also the factors which are associated with flocks with good leg health. This should lead to recommendations of best practice, which might rapidly lead to benefits. We endorse this study proposal and strongly recommend that it should be supported and funded.

Last modified 6 July, 2005
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