Chicken sourcing focuses on bird welfare

Canadian chickens, such as these day-old chicks on a broiler farm, are part of a debate over poultry welfare in this country.  | File photo

Fast-food chain commits to improving animal welfare with certification program for chicken production

Tim Hortons is continuing a trend that’s quickly becoming the status quo, where fast food chains are shaping animal welfare policies in North America.

The company and Burger King, which operate together as Restaurant Brands International (RBI), recently released a new sourcing policy for broiler chickens.

In a collaboration with Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a farm animal welfare certification program, RBI said it would buy only from farmers who reduce the stocking density of chickens, improve light levels, have enrichments such as perches and offer better litter quality inside the barn. The policy takes full effect in 2024.

The Tim Hortons-Burger King commitment adheres to policies already adopted by Starbucks, Quiznos, Chipotle and Panera, Mercy for Animals said in a statement.

“(Its) commitment to improving the welfare of the chickens in its supply chain by meeting GAP standards will reduce the suffering of millions of chickens each year,” said Brent Cox, vice-president of corporate outreach with Mercy For Animals.

“It should inspire other leading quick-serve restaurant chains to implement identical commonsense welfare improvements.”

Darren Vanstone, corporate engagement manager for World Animal Protection, said the Tim Hortons’ commitment is huge for broiler welfare because the company is huge.

“(It’s) a massive brand with a lot of different locations,” he said.

“They’re a heavyweight.”

Restaurant Brands International has more than 20,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries. The chicken sourcing policy applies to Burger King and Tim Hortons locations in North America.

In the last few years, quick service restaurants have become proactive on animal welfare, announcing sourcing policies for things such as cage free laying hens and cage free pork.

Given their scale, companies like Tim Hortons and McDonald’s have the power to influence farm practices because of the volume of meat that they buy and sell.

“These (restaurants) are making decisions on behalf of consumers,” said Mike Von Massow, a food agriculture and resource economics professor at the University of Guelph.

“Whether it’s a full service restaurant and the server is telling you all about it (animal welfare or sustainability), or a quick service restaurant like A&W and they’re screaming it from the mountain top … that is shaping people’s opinions of those attributes.”

Some animal welfare experts are concerned that the fast food chains are usurping the power of organizations such as the National Farm Animal Care Council in Canada. The council develops codes of practice in a unique partnership in which producer groups, food processors, retailers and animal welfare groups jointly develop standards for raising livestock.

Vanstone said the corporate leaders take the necessary steps before they adopt an animal welfare policy, and the overall impact has been positive.

The retailers are listening to animal welfare groups, consumers and producers, and they want to do the right thing.

“Just because we’re saying this is a better way of doing it, we’re not saying the NFACC codes are not meaningful and they don’t provide good welfare. We’re suggesting this (restaurant commitments) could provide better welfare.”

Under its broiler rules, farmers will have to reduce their stocking density to sell chicken to Tim Hortons and Burger King.

U.S. farmers can now have 44 kilograms (of broilers) per sq. metre of barn space, Vanstone said.

“This will bring it down to about 30 (kg per sq. metre),” he said, adding Canadian regulations for density are already close to 30.

“There are probably about 20,000 birds in a house.”

The stocking density will probably have the largest impact on chicken farmers because more barns will be needed to produce the same number of birds.

Animal welfare groups have long complained that broilers have a poor quality of life because they reach harvest age so quickly and their bodies don’t have enough time to develop, causing pain or discomfort.

“They (are) processed at 39 to 42 days (of age), depending on the weight,” Vanstone said. “If you think of their tibia, they’re born with three centimetre tibias and by the time they’re done it will go to 11 cm…. It’s a really fast growth rate. Giving them something to jump up and down and walk on will allow them to increase their leg strength (and improve heart health).”

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