The move, announced at the retailer’s AGM over the weekend, will see its fresh chickens reared with a reduced maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2 from the second half of 2024 – a 20% cut on the existing industry standard of 38kg/m2.
The commitment would ensure the retailer’s chickens had “more space and a healthier life”, the Co-op said.
Alongside more space, chickens will also benefit from enrichments such as natural light, perches and pecking objects “which allows the birds to thrive and express natural chicken behaviours”, it added. The retailer will also publicly report on key welfare indicators on an annual basis.
However, it has decided against adopting the Better Chicken Commitment – something 96% of the retailer’s members voted in favour of on Saturday – which requires signatories to also change the type of birds used from fast-growing so-called ‘Frankenchickens’ to slower-growing breeds such as the Hubbard chicken.
In a statement, the Co-op said it understood the call to move to slower-growing breeds “which we acknowledge and will continue to investigate as an important component of our chicken welfare commitments”.
But the retailer added there were “considerable costs associated with moving our supply over to a slower-growing breed”, both for the business and also at the shelf edge for its members and customers.
The stocking density commitment follows many weeks of campaigning and protests at the retailer’s stores by welfare group The Humane League.
A judicial review – brought forward by the organisation – also opened earlier this month and claims the government has an unlawful policy of permitting the rearing of ‘Frankenchickens’. The Humane League argued fast-growing breeds were illegal because their genes cause detriment to their health and welfare, something the law forbids.
The outcome of the case is expected later this year and could ultimately threaten the future of fast-growing chickens in the UK, the campaign group said.
The Co-op was “acutely aware that in the current economic climate, it is more important than ever that we continue to provide them with a good value, high-quality, responsibly sourced chicken offer”, the retailer stressed.
But its decision not to adopt the BCC in its full form was slammed by The Humane League, with senior campaigner Aaron Parr describing a move away from fast-growing breeds as a “crucial” tool in improving animal welfare outcomes.
Illness and pain
“The science is clear: you can keep fast-growing birds in a higher welfare environment, and they will still be plagued with higher rates of illness and pain than slower-growing birds,” Parr argued.
“While increased space is good, it can only do so much when chickens are immobilised by lameness from the weight of their own bodies. This change is frankly not good enough. Members overwhelmingly voted in favour of adopting the Better Chicken Commitment in full for a reason. The Co-op cannot continue to make money off suffering animals.”
Looking after animals in its care was described as “a priority for us and ensures we can conveniently provide great quality, 100% British protein that also represents good value which our customers can afford, particular in these challenging cost of living times”, stressed Co-op Food MD Matt Hood.
“I’m pleased this move will make a significant difference to our chicken welfare standards, and whilst I acknowledge delivering animal welfare improvements is an ongoing process, this is a big step in the right direction,” he added.