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Poultry welfare – expectations and reality

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It is time for some self-reflection and to ask ourselves a few difficult questions about public trust in poultry production and animal welfare.

By Michael J. Darre, Ph.D., P.A.S., professor and extension poultry specialist, Department of Animal Science, University of Connecticut


Welfare of poultry, especially laying hens, has become a major issue for commercial poultry producers in the last 15 to 20 years. What is happening to the commercial egg business is also setting the stage for what happens next in the poultry meat sector.

Various animal welfare/animal rights groups have been actively protesting commercial animal agriculture since the publication of “Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry” by Ruth Harrison in 1964. Their most recent victory, the passage of Proposition 2 in California in November 2008, set the stage for dictating through legislation how farmers can house and manage their animals. It also demonstrated how public opinion can be manipulated using emotional campaigns. This victory emboldened the activists, and shortly thereafter the United Egg Producers (UEP) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came to an “agreement” and proposed national legislation on how laying hens should be housed and managed, which sparked another whirlwind of controversy.

Proposition 2 California 1405USAwelfare

Proposition 2 in California was preceded by years of propaganda and then supported by a massive ad campaign.

Animal rightists have the upper hand

It appears that the animal rights activists have had the upper hand in defining the meaning of welfare for commercial egg and meat bird producers, and we are now at the point where emotion trumps science, and legal maneuvering dominates the natural evolution of farming practices. As a result of clever manipulation though ad campaigns by the animal rights groups the public is no longer asking “Why animal rights?” but is saying “Why not animal rights?”

It is time for some self-reflection and to ask ourselves a few difficult questions.

  • Why has the public been persuaded to accept the animal rights agenda over that of the American farmer?
  • Is it possible to gain the public trust again?
  • Are new housing and management systems really improving the welfare of the hens?
  • What does the public expect from the poultry industry, and how does that mesh with reality?

What is animal welfare?

What does “animal welfare” mean? According to Merriam Webster Online, welfare is: the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous. And Dictionary.com defines it as a good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity.

According to the FASS Statement on Farm Animal Well Being (2010) “Scientists and animal producers have an ethical obligation to provide environments for farm animals that promote animal well-being.” And that “Determination of the animal’s well-being is only gained through understanding the science of farm animal needs.”

Animal well-being is a complex issue that involves philosophical, emotional, religious, political and practical elements. The European Welfare Quality program defined animal welfare to consist of good feeding, good housing, good health and appropriate behavior (Blokhuis, et al., 2010; Temple et al. 2011). Much of the European concept was derived from the five freedoms expressed in the Brambell report of 1965 (which, by the way, was triggered by Ruth Harrison’s book).

The five freedoms of the Brambell report

These five are the freedom:

  1. from hunger and thirst
  2. from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  3. from pain, injury, and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind
  5. from fear and stress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

How to measure well-being?

More recently, some animal scientists have placed the individual animal more central in defining animal welfare as: “the ability of an animal to cope physiologically, behaviorally, cognitively and emotionally with its physiochemical and social life environment, including the animal’s subjective experience of its condition” (Sejian et al., 2010). It is the subjective part where this concept of welfare gets tricky! This is because not all scientists agree on what measures can be used to assess well-being. Thus, animal welfare assessments may be based on measures related to the physiological (such as feed intake), physical (body damage), behavioral (tail biting) and production (growth impairment or drops in production).

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Well-being: A good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness and prosperity -Dictionary.com

Social change driving the public’s views

Why has the public been persuaded to accept the animal rights agenda over that of the American farmer? The quick answer: Social change.

Why did the publication of Harrison’s book have such an impact? Because of the social changes occurring in the 1960s. During this time there was a rapid move from rural to urban living and an increase in the number of animals kept as pets. This spurred attitude changes toward the use and care of animals. Peoples convictions about how animals should be raised and treated started to transform, and many individuals started to attribute humanlike characteristics, such as feelings, cognition, and intentions, to nonhuman agents such as farm animals, and hence grant these animals moral worth (Waytz et al., 2010), such as freedom and autonomy. This phenomenon has been referred to as anthropomorphism (Grossman and Simon, 1969; Waytz et al., 2010).

Working out the ‘societal implications’

During the 1960s and 1970s peoples’ attitude toward established mores and moral values were rapidly changing, resulting in the emergence of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and environmentalism. People ranging from college students to housewives were getting involved in social movements.

According to Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, “The Animal Rights Movement is just the natural, logical working out of the implications of evolution in society.”

Many groups, such as PETA, HSUS, and Mercy for Animals, took advantage of this and developed campaigns to convince the public that animal agriculture as currently practiced was bad. However, they never really reveal their true goal, which is to abolish all animal use by humans. In fact, in 1980, HSUS officially began to change its focus from animal welfare to animal rights. After a vote was taken at the group’s San Francisco national conference, it was formally resolved that HSUS would “pursue on all fronts … the clear articulation and establishment of the rights of all animals … within the full range of American life and culture.”

Miyun Park, former HSUS director of the Factory Farming Campaign, said it even more succinctly in 2006 when she stated: “HSUS’ objective is ‘to get rid of’ the egg and broiler industries in the United States.”

Animal agriculture on the wrong track

Where was animal agriculture all this time? Scientists were trying to convince people with facts, while the animal rights people were working on emotions. We (AG) had data and studies to say we are doing things right, and they had graphic video and pictures to convince people we were doing things wrong. We were keeping people off farms due to bio-security issues, and they were telling people we were hiding the wholesale torture of animals.

We went to the heads of corporations and food companies and some consumer groups with our scientific panel data such as the UEP report “The Egg Industry and Animal Welfare – A Science Based Approach.” Meanwhile, HSUS was buying chunks of stock in publicly traded food companies to be able to introduce shareholder resolutions and pressure company executives to alter their purchasing decisions.

The animal rightists’ strategy has worked. Companies including Wendy’s, Sonic Corp. and the parent company of the IHOP and Applebee’s restaurant chains have all started shifting to using cage-free eggs, according to HSUS officials.

Agriculture became somewhat splintered, especially after H.R. 1731, a bill To provide for a uniform national standard for the housing and treatment of egg-laying hens, and for other purposes, was proposed through a joint effort (agreement?) of HSUS and the UEP. This Act may be cited as the “Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2013.” The UEP and others who tried to defeat the aforementioned Prop 2 in California almost went broke and could not fight the HSUS in every state on the issue.

Face up to difference in goals

Are new housing and management systems really improving the welfare of the hens?

We don’t have all the facts yet to say whether the alternative systems, such as free range, colony cages, enrichable cages, aviaries, etc., are improving welfare compared to the conventional battery cage, but it may be perceived by the public as a step in the right direction. Again, the goal of HSUS and other groups is to abolish animal agriculture and make a vegetarian society, not to improve the way we grow our food animals. Welfare is not really their goal; it is a goal AG has adopted because we really do care about our animals.

What the public expects from the poultry industry

What does the public expect from the poultry industry, and how does that mesh with reality?

Most of the public does not know anything about poultry production. They don’t know that meat birds are reared differently than layers. The public only knows what they are told and what they see. They see negative images from PETA and HSUS and believe that all of farming is that way. They see talking cows and chickens roaming free on rolling green hills on TV and think this is how animals should be. Their reality is what they perceive to be true. That perception is now being driven by animal rights groups through social media. AG has done a poor job of keeping the public informed over the past 25 to 30 years, and in that time we have pretty much lost a couple of generations of people. We now need to concentrate on the future consumers. Let’s be honest and tell our story, all together.

Is it possible to gain the public trust again?

The social context of animal production has changed because urbanized society’s relationship with animals has changed. Animals have become more than “commodities.”

Science and rational argument has not fared well against social issues and emotions relative to welfare and the commercial poultry industry in the U.S. Agriculture needs to think of this issue in a “marketplace” context.

What are the consumer’s values? The side that “markets” to those values wins. AG needs to become more transparent and appeal to consumer values. Obviously, some individual companies are trying to do this now, such as Perdue Farms and Chick-fil-A.

AG needs to work together as one face, something which organizations such as the Animal Agriculture Alliance are trying to do. We need to support Agriculture in the Classroom and get the message out to our children. HSUS and PETA are already there!

We need to be on social media with our positive message: That no one cares more about their animals than farmers. After all it is their “bread and butter” so to speak. It may take a generation or two, but it is either that or stand and watch animal agriculture legislated away! It’s time we get “emotional” and tell our story!



Blokhuis, H. J., I. Veissier, M. Miele, and B. Jones. 2010. The Welfare Quality® project and beyond: Safeguarding farm animal well-being. Acta Agric. Scand. A 60:129-140.

Grossman, W. I., and B. Simon. 1969. Anthropomorphism. Motive, meaning, and causality in psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanal. Study Child 24:78-111.

Sejian, V., J. Lakritz, T. Ezeji, and R. Lal. 2010. Assessment methods and indicators of animal welfare. Asian J. Anim. Vet. Adv. 6:301-315.

Temple, D., A. Dalmau, J. L. Ruiz de la Torre, X. Manteca, and A. Velarde. 2011. Application of the Welfare Quality protocol to assess growing pigs kept under intensive conditions in Spain. J. Vet. Behav. 6:138-149.

Waytz, A., J. Cacioppo, and N. Epley. 2010. Who sees human? The stability and importance of individual differences in anthropomorphism. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 5:219-232.

Posted on November 6, 2014
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