The Ross 308 is one of the most successful consumer products in history, with tens of billions sold worldwide over the past decade.
With its own 15-page performance manual, low production costs and a favorable price for buyers, it is marketed as the most popular meat chicken in the world.
Owned by global breeding company Aviagen, the Ross 308 was bred to kill weight in just 35 days, growing more than three times faster than conventional breeds of the 1950s.
As families across the country gather this weekend, the Ross 308 will be an affordable option for the Easter Sunday roast. A whole chicken can be purchased for as little as £2.46.
Animal welfare campaigners say the cost of this cheap meat is paid by the chickens, which are growing so fast that their hearts and bone structures can struggle to cope. They want retailers to stop selling the Ross 308 and Cobb 500, the UK’s other leading fast-growing breed, citing research showing these chickens had higher mortality, lameness and muscle disease than chickens. slower growing breeds.
But the poultry industry warned this weekend that switching to slower-growing breeds could raise the price of a standard chicken by more than 30% at a time when consumers are facing a cost crisis. of life. This puts broilers – known in the industry as broilers – at the center of one of the biggest animal welfare battles since the 2012 ban on sterile battery cages for chickens. hens.
There are now 325 retailers and companies in the UK and Europe, including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, KFC and Premier Foods, who have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, the international initiative to phase out the use of chicken breeds. rapidly growing, which activists call “Frankenchickens”.
The pledge requires companies to adopt slower-growing breeds by 2026, including some produced by Aviagen, with higher welfare outcomes and lower stocking density.
All major food supermarkets in France have signed this commitment. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in February that one of its wellbeing priorities was to implement the pledge.
However, most major UK supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, have yet to sign the pledge and campaigners fear the cost of living crisis could be used to stall the campaign.
Environment Secretary George Eustice warned last month that the price of chicken could rise significantly due to rising energy costs and war-affected feed prices in Ukraine.
Campaigners say poultry has been produced at too low a price and farmers need to be paid more to ensure better conditions for broilers.
On the modern food plate, chicken may be cheaper than fries. A whole 1.4kg Willow Farm chicken at Tesco costs just £2.89 (£2.07 per kg), compared to a 1.6kg bag of homemade McCain crisps which costs £3.50 (£2.19 lbs per kg).
Connor Jackson, chief executive of animal welfare group Open Cages, which has carried out secret investigations into broiler farms, said: “It is very sad that the lives of these animals are of such little value. We call them Frankenchickens. The science is clear that fast growing chickens like the Ross 308 are doomed by their genetics. These were designed to grow so incredibly fast, and their bodies just can’t handle it.
Jackson said secret filming at broiler farms supplying major supermarkets showed birds struggling to walk or collapsing under their own weight, or dying of heart failure, and dead birds were filmed lying down among the herds. Chicken farmers say they are committed to animal welfare and the vast majority of birds are clean and healthy.
The modern broiler industry developed in the United States and Britain after World War II. Large-scale breeding companies have used genetic selection to produce birds with faster growth rates, efficient feed conversion into muscle growth, and higher breast meat yield.
Over 1.1 billion broilers are produced each year in the UK, with Ross 308 being the most popular brand. Millions are raised on farms that can house more than 200,000 birds.
A 2019 study by Aarhus University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that a Ross 308 took 32 days to grow to 1.8kg compared to a broiler grown at from commercial meat chicken from 1957, which took more than 100 days to reach the same weight.
Fast-growing breeds help provide a cheap and plentiful supply of meat, but in recent years research has highlighted animal welfare issues. An RSPCA report in March 2020 found that fast-growing broilers had significantly higher mortality (including culls), a greater risk of lameness and were more affected by diseases of the mammary muscles, breast wood and white stripes.
The report states: “Although current genetic selection programs may be justified by some on the basis that they result in an animal that provides a cheap and efficient source of meat and protein, there is no acceptable justification when such programs have serious inherent flaws and are associated with poor health and well-being.
Andrew Knight, Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Winchester, said: “With these very rapid growth rates, it can be difficult for the heart and circulatory system to keep up with the expansion of the body mass. Some of these animals suffer from heart failure. It is also difficult for bones, ligaments and tendons to keep up with the rapid increase in body mass, which means that some of these birds become severely lame.
Animal welfare charity the Humane League UK has unsuccessfully sought a judicial review against the government over the production of fast-growing chickens, which it considers a breach of 2007 regulations on the welfare of farmed animals, which states that animals cannot be farmed unless they can. be stored “without any adverse effect on their health or well-being”. The charity said last week it intended to appeal.
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said farmers need healthy chickens, but fast-growing breeds like the Ross 308 can be raised with good animal welfare. He said there were concerns about the rate of growth, but improved farming and animal husbandry technology was making a difference and the industry’s adoption of slower-growing and improved breeds. A reduced stocking density would have a significant environmental impact, as it would require more food and more space. But it could also increase the price of fresh chicken by more than 30%.
“We are a dynamic industry and we are responding to consumer demand, but several factors are at play, including a cost of living crisis.”
Rob Morton, 49, of Morton’s Family Farm in Norfolk, breeds the slower growing Hubbard JA787 chicken for the Christmas market and hopes to increase production throughout the year. “It makes for a tastier bird because it has time to mature.”
A spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium said supermarkets offered customers affordable choices to high standards, including those of the Better Chicken Commitment: “All major UK supermarkets take their welfare responsibilities very seriously. animal.
A spokesperson for Aviagen, headquartered in Alabama, USA, said, “Our first priority is and always has been the welfare of our birds. Welfare traits are an important part of modern broiler husbandry and are among the top breeding priorities for all of our breeds that we supply. The spokesperson said the company had bred a range of birds to meet different requirements, including the Better Chicken Commitment.
Dr Tracey Jones, director of food affairs at Compassion in World Farming, said last week that it was possible to implement the Better Chicken Commitment despite rising food prices. “It will be difficult, but we have to eat less meat. Then maybe we could afford to pay for better quality chicken.