Sustainable Sourcing: Ethical and Environmentally-Friendly Chicken Choices

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Chicken is one of the most popular meats consumed around the world. However, conventional chicken farming can have major ethical and environmental issues. Sourcing chicken sustainably considers animal welfare and the environmental impact. This allows consumers to make informed choices about buying chicken.

Overview of Chicken Farming and Sourcing

Chicken is the most widely eaten meat globally, with over 90 million tons consumed in 2020 alone. The vast majority comes from intensive indoor farming systems focused on high production at low costs.

While this has driven down chicken prices, it has also led to concerns over:

  • Animal cruelty and poor living conditions
  • Routine antibiotic use leading to resistance
  • Pollution from waste and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Consumer health risks from pathogens

Sustainable sourcing provides an alternative that balances human needs, animal welfare and environmental impacts. It looks at how chicken is raised, processed, transported and sold. By supporting sustainable practices, consumers can help drive higher welfare and eco-friendly standards.

Conventional Sustainable
Intensive indoor systems Free range and organic systems
Focus on high production Focus on animal welfare and environment
Low costs for consumers Higher costs but ethical value
Linked to animal cruelty Higher welfare standards
Routine antibiotic use Restricted antibiotic use
Pollution and emissions Lower environmental impact farming

Sustainable chicken considers every step of production and sale. This includes the breed of chicken, how it is raised, fed, processed and transported to markets. By supporting sustainable practices, consumers can help drive higher welfare and eco-friendly standards.

Chicken Breeds and Welfare Issues

Over 90% of chickens farmed for meat come from the Cornish Cross breed. This hybrid chicken has been selectively bred to grow extremely fast and convert feed efficiently into breast meat.

However, this intense breeding causes major welfare concerns:

  • Rapid growth leads to skeletal problems and lameness
  • Chickens struggle to move due to excessive weight
  • Mortality rates are higher than slower growing breeds
  • Behavioural issues from frustration, inability to express natural behaviours

Slower growing heritage chicken breeds have much higher welfare outcomes. When reared in free range or organic systems, they can express natural behaviours like perching, foraging and dust bathing. Their bodies are not overloaded from fast growth.

Examples of welfare-friendly heritage chicken breeds include:

  • Plymouth Rock
  • Jersey Giant
  • Wyandotte
  • Rhode Island Red
  • Orpington

By choosing free range or organic chicken from heritage breeds, consumers support farming practices that allow chickens to have higher welfare lives.

Intensive Chicken Farming Systems

Over 99% of US chickens come from intensive indoor systems focused on high throughput and low costs. The two main systems are:

Battery Cages

Battery cages house multiple hens in small wire cages stacked in tiers. Issues include:

  • Extreme overcrowding – often 5-10 birds per cage
  • No ability to move freely or express natural behaviours
  • Causes skin abrasions, foot and leg issues
  • Increased aggression and distress

Barns or Warehouses

Chickens are housed together on the floor of large barns with no outdoor access. Problems include:

  • Overcrowded with up to 20,000 – 30,000 birds
  • Respiratory issues from high ammonia levels
  • Leg and foot sores from standing in waste
  • Higher aggression due to stress
  • Routine antibiotic use for disease prevention

Both systems provide cheap chicken but are linked to major animal cruelty issues. Sustainable sourcing avoids intensive rearing practices.

Free Range and Organic Chicken Farming

Free range and organic production allow chickens to express natural behaviours outdoors on pasture, with mobile housing moved regularly to fresh ground. This provides:

  • Access to outdoors and natural light
  • Enriched environment for exercise and foraging
  • Lower stocking densities to prevent overcrowding
  • Mobile housing reduces disease risk and nutrient build up

Organic standards also require:

  • Slower growing heritage breeds to prevent welfare issues
  • 100% organic vegetarian feed with no artificial additives
  • No routine antibiotics allowed

The improved living conditions enhance overall chicken health and welfare compared to conventional systems.

Chicken Feed and Sustainability

Chicken feed can have major sustainability impacts depending on the ingredients used:

Conventional Feed

  • Grains like corn and soy – often genetically engineered and grown with chemical fertilizers/pesticides
  • Can include animal by-products to boost protein
  • Routine antibiotics used for disease prevention and growth promotion

Sustainable Feed

  • Organic grains and soybeans – grown without synthetic chemicals
  • Vegetable by-products like almond meal for protein
  • No animal by-products or routine antibiotics

Organic operations require chickens to be fed 100% organic feed with no animal products or artificial additives like hormones/antibiotics. This reduces health risks and environmental impacts.

Pasture access also allows chickens to supplement their diet through foraging on plants, worms and insects. This provides micronutrients and antioxidants missing from commercial feed.

Environmental Impacts of Chicken Production

High density conventional chicken farming creates major pollution issues, including:

  • Eutrophication – Run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutes waterways, causing algal blooms and dead zones in lakes/rivers
  • Greenhouse gases – Manure releases methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions
  • Waste – Tonnes of manure must be stored and disposed of, risking further water pollution

In contrast, free range and organic systems have a lower environmental footprint:

  • Mobile housing moved regularly to fresh pasture to avoid nutrient overload
  • Lower stocking density produces less concentrated waste
  • Pastured chickens help fertilize soil naturally

While organic chicken has a higher land requirement, the reduction in synthetic chemical use and pollution impact is significant.

Antibiotic Use in Chicken Farming

Antibiotics are routinely used in conventional chicken production for disease prevention and to promote faster growth. This contributes to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that infect humans.

Key issues include:

  • Non-therapeutic use – Low doses given routinely to entire flocks, not just sick animals
  • Last resort drugs used – Classes like fluoroquinolones that are critical for human medicine
  • Resistant bacteria spread – From chickens to humans via direct contact, food, environment

Antibiotic use is banned or greatly restricted in organic production. Avoiding routine non-therapeutic use is critical to reducing resistance risks.

Food Safety Concerns with Chicken

Intensive chicken farming increases the risk of pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter spreading to consumers. Factors include:

  • Close confinement of chickens
  • Ammonia burns damage intestinal tract lining in chickens, enabling bacterial invasion
  • Stress weakens chickens immune systems, increasing shedding of pathogens
  • Processing can spread pathogens from contaminated equipment or water

Outbreaks of foodborne illness from chicken are common. Sustainable practices like mobile housing, restricted antibiotic use and smaller scale processing greatly reduce contamination risks.

Sustainably Sourced Chicken Products

There are a growing number of brands offering welfare-friendly, sustainably sourced chicken products. Here are some options to look for:

Pasture Raised

  • Chickens live freely outdoors on rotated pasture
  • Moderate stocking densities (up to 1000 chickens per acre)
  • Mobile housing moved regularly to fresh ground

Free Range

  • Outdoor access but with higher stocking densities
  • Typically up to 2500 chickens per acre
  • Not rotated onto fresh pasture as regularly

Organic

  • Required outdoor access and lower stocking densities
  • 100% organic feed with no animal by-products or routine antibiotics
  • Slower growing heritage breeds

Animal Welfare Approved

  • Certification with stringent standards on living conditions, transport, processing etc.
  • Pasture centered using sustainable farming practices
  • Annual audits to ensure standards are met

American Humane Certified

  • Third party certification program
  • Standards cover feed, housing, health management and processing
  • Routine audits of farms to verify requirements met

Consumers should check labels and ask producers about their practices. Farmers markets can offer traceability and insight into how your chicken was raised.

The True Cost of Cheap Chicken

While conventionally produced chicken is cheap, it comes at a major cost to animal welfare, human health and the environment.

Sustainably produced chicken has a higher retail price, but provides:

  • Improved animal living conditions and reduced suffering
  • Reduced risk of antibiotic resistance emerging
  • Lower environmental pollution from waste and chemicals
  • Decreased risk of foodborne pathogens

When accounting for ethical and ecological impacts, sustainably sourced chicken represents the true value to society and the planet. The higher price supports more responsible production.

Making Sustainable Chicken Choices

Consumers play a powerful role in shifting chicken production to more sustainable practices through their purchasing decisions. Here are some tips:

  • Choose certified free range, pasture raised or organic chicken from welfare-friendly breeds
  • Check labels and ask producers about how their chicken is raised
  • Buy from local farms and farmers markets when possible
  • Reduce chicken consumption to help lower demand on industrial systems
  • Be willing to pay more for ethical, eco-friendly chicken
  • Encourage retailers and restaurants to offer sustainable chicken options

By supporting producers aligned with our values, we vote for a food system that respects animal welfare, human health, and the environment. Sustainable sourcing provides tasty, nutritious chicken that we can truly feel good about buying.

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About the Author: Staff Reporter