EFSA calls for better chicken welfare as EU reviews animal welfare legislation

The use of cages, mutilation and feed restrictions should be avoided for the welfare of broilers and laying hens, according to new scientific opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The findings come ahead of a review of EU animal welfare legislation.

The conclusions of the EU’s scientific body are clear: “Birds should be kept in cage-free systems.” The EFSA also recommends that beak trimming, a practice used to prevent feather pecking, should be abolished. ​ “Beak trimming should not be necessary if good management practices are applied,” it says.

The EFSA also says that genetic selection for rapid growth, feed restrictions, high stocking densities and temperatures, the absence or poor quality of litter and sub-optimal light management are detrimental to the welfare of broilers and laying hens. In short, all standard practices in the poultry industry would be better curtailed.

Serious welfare consequences

While there are many welfare issues that need urgent attention, the current focus in Europe is on confinement. “It leads to serious welfare consequences such as restricted movement, inability to perform exploration, foraging and comfort behaviours such as dust bathing, and isolation stress in the case of individual cages,” Frank Verdonck, head of the Biological Hazards & Animal Health and Welfare Unit at EFSA, told Euractiv. EFSA, therefore, recommends that all birds be housed in alternative systems.

In 2022, the European Commission (EC) looked at the EU’s current animal welfare legislation. It concluded that a review was needed. The EFSA has been asked to examine how the legislation could be improved. In the meantime, the EC has pledged to work towards a ban on cages for farm animals.

The EC’s commitment was partly due to the End the Cage Age campaign, an initiative by several European animal welfare organisations. The campaign collected more than 1.4 million signatures from Europeans who support the phasing out of intensive cage systems. These include laying hens, other birds, rabbits, pigs and fish.

End the Cage Age

Recently, Flemish minister for Animal Welfare Ben Weyts (N-VA) launched the Flemish Animal Welfare Code, which includes the phasing out of cages in the chicken industry. From January 2024, there will be a ban on all cage systems for laying hens. However, the prohibition for existing farms will not take effect until January 2036.

For egg production, millions of laying hens live in cramped, overcrowded cages. Tightly packed together, they spend their entire lives on wire floors, never going outside, unable to scratch or even flap their wings. This autumn, the EC is considering the fate of these and other animals in intensive farming as part of a review of animal welfare legislation.