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Is it possible to have higher welfare and more sustainable chicken at the scale we consume?

14 June 2024

Sustainability goes far beyond environmental considerations and includes a wide range of issues associated with how food is produced. The production of our meat products has been at the forefront of that debate. On 23 May 2024, we attended the launch of "Better chicken, better business – a guide for hospitality and foodservice" (the Guide) by Footprint Intelligence in association with RSPCA Assured. 

The Guide (accessible for download here) considers consumer expectation and understanding of the current chicken on offer, if there is a trade off when considering sustainability, climate and welfare, and suggests that there can be solutions to some of the supply chain challenges.

With a room full of hospitality and foodservice industry professionals (focused on procurement of poultry, or more broadly on sustainability) it was clear at the launch event that there is wide industry interest in improving chicken welfare and sustainability. 

With the Guide suggesting there is "hope that hospitality can supply higher welfare chicken and eggs, yet still meet carbon targets, keep costs down and satisfy customers", the room was left hopeful. However, the statistics suggest this is no mean feat:

  • Farmed poultry comprises 70% of all birds on earth.
  • The amount of chicken being consumed has nearly doubled in the past 30 years.
  • Chicken accounts for 8% of the livestock sector's total emissions.

We consider the current legal position, taking into account some of the Guide's key points, and identify key legal considerations when innovating to create 'better' chicken.

What is the current legal position on welfare?

A wealth of strict controls regulate the welfare of poultry raised for foods, the marketing of chicken meat and eggs, and set out hygiene rules for poultry production.

Anyone operating a food business needs to meet hygiene requirements, with specific rules set out for products of animal origin (including poultry) in Regulation (EC) No 835/2004. The aims often naturally overlap with animal welfare (e.g. limiting the spread of disease has a dual impact on animal welfare and hygiene). Some areas focus specifically on welfare, such as live animals being transported to slaughterhouses needing to be "handled carefully without causing unnecessary distress".    

There is a welfare-focused law too. The Animal Welfare Act 2006, which outlines general provisions for animal welfare, sets standards for keeping animals and preventing unnecessary suffering. Meat chickens and laying hens fall within the remit of the Act and the Regulations and Codes made under it. Not complying with the Codes on welfare can be used as evidence if any prosecution is brought for causing unnecessary suffering.

In 2021 the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act increased the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty in England and Wales, including gross neglect of farm animals, to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. 

There are a number of marketing standards which must be met for chicken meat and eggs to be described using certain special marketing terms, such as 'barn-reared' and 'free range'. For poultry to be barn-reared (or 'extensive indoor'), requirements are set for maximum stocking rates and age of slaughter (56 days for chickens). 

'Free range' chicken, meat and eggs must additionally meet specific feed formula and access requirements, whilst 'organic' chicken meat and eggs must be farmed using only organic farming methods, avoiding artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and products for cleaning and disinfection, and be certified with an approved UK organic control body. 

Do consumers want 'better' chicken?

A key driver of change can be consumer demand. According to the Guide, 88% of UK adults say they actively care about farm animal welfare. This is reflected in the increased sentencing powers on some offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, by which Parliament intended to show a clear signal that animal cruelty will not be tolerated. 

The Guide uses the term 'better' with a focus on welfare, alongside emissions and forest clearance from the production of the soy used for feed. However, it also suggests that there is general confusion about current welfare – beliefs that chickens are generally reared in better conditions than they actually are, and a "poor understanding of the welfare differences between certifications". Despite strict regulations on organic labelling, a 2021 FSA evidence review on consumer responses to food labelling showed studies consistently found that knowledge about organic labelling and certification standards was low.

Along with strict regulations on the use of terminology like organic, care should be taken when using any type of sustainability claim (whether specific or more general). When using the term 'better' to describe something you are selling, you are at risk of challenge, especially because of its comparative nature. Better how? Nutritionally? Environmentally? For the consumer, or for the chickens? Better than what? Can you substantiate it? Take a look at our article: Consumer Trends 2024: Green claims – all risk, what reward? for more on the current green claims landscape.

Climate vs welfare: a competition?

It can also feel like there are competing aims for business. The Guide says there is a common perception that higher welfare chicken has a higher carbon impact as they live longer and use more resources. There are hints that these aims can be compatible, with an example given of a slower-growing breed being able to tolerate reductions in GHG-intensive soy.

Feed is clearly a focus, with the Guide noting that "Chicken's environmental footprint stems principally from scope 3: feed and land use". Soy is even more of a focus, not just because of its prevalence in animal feed but its inclusion in the EU Deforestation Regulation. However, a reduction of soy in feed is noted as potentially impacting chickens negatively and the development of alternatives requires investment. Additionally, any developments of novel feed alternatives will need to comply with the current poultry marketing standards, such as the requirement for feed formula given to free range poultry during the fattening period to contain at least 70% of cereals.

Better and less?

Reduction of consumption is not ignored; the Guide considers how hospitality and foodservice can rejig their menus to have a lower proportion of meat-based protein, making up for the protein from other sources, and still appeal to customers. It also flags the development of 'cultivated' chicken in other countries, and how this could influence emissions. 

Whether it be feed development (which as noted above must comply with feed regulation) or the creation of alternative proteins, it is always best to understand the legal framework you are dealing with from the outset. For more on alternative proteins see our article: Consumer Trends 2024: The future of food – will the regulatory regime keep up? The FSA expects most of these products will be considered novel foods, and thereby require novel food authorisation before being placed on the UK market. With the novel foods regulatory framework under review, that could bring an opportunity for sustainability to be considered when approving novel foods applications. 


Cost cannot be ignored. The Guide acknowledges that currently, it does tend to be true that higher welfare equals higher purchase costs. 

However, examples are given of how operators are addressing cost issues themselves, with Compass "moving towards a model in which it buys the whole bird, gets it butchered, and directs the constituent pieces to relevant parts of its business." It does give hope that, by considering internal and wider food systems/operations, there can be a compromise. 

Supply chain challenges

It is recognised that despite what consumers want, there are challenges in driving change in hospitality and foodservice due to market share (compared to retail) and sometimes more complicated supply chains. There were discussions in the room that suggested it would be a struggle for those in industry to procure enough 'better' chicken without an uptick in supply.

With producers appearing willing to respond to demand for 'better' chicken, communication is needed so that producers are aware. As this cannot be produced quickly, they need commitment. Technical blockers, such as an inability to filter by standards on wholesaler websites were also discussed. 

Ultimately, the Guide says industry should "come together, to demand change collectively and to commit to purchasing [Better Chicken Commitment] products when they are available". There is not a 'one size fits all' solution, but the Guide is a good starting point for those in foodservice and hospitality thinking about how they can offer 'better' chicken.


A key theme of the Guide is collaboration, whether that involves industry players committing to the Better Chicken Commitment, communication with wholesalers/suppliers, or information sharing at a lateral competitor level. 

With collaboration comes a competition risk. As the Guide notes, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have guidance in relation to agreements on sustainability issues. Also, see our article here: CMA's New Green Agreements Guidance Recognises Importance of Sustainability Collaboration for a summary.

If you have any questions about points raised in this article, food innovation, sustainability or supply chains generally, please get in touch with authors below.

Further Reading