Warning: Readers may find images in this story upsetting
KFC refuses to say if it will sign up to the "Better Chicken Commitment" its competitor Domino's Pizza has adopted which promises a switch from fast-growing "Frankenchickens" to slower growing breeds.
Animals Aotearoa has released disturbing footage of fast-growing chickens to RNZ and is challenging all New Zealand's food companies to follow Domino's lead and change to slower-growing breeds, which can take around two weeks longer to reach full size.
The pizza company signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, and Animals Aotearoa executive director Marianne Macdonald said the decision was ground-breaking and a "wake-up call" to other fast food chains.
"It is fantastic that Domino's has listened to customer concerns about animal welfare and responsibly acted on the demand for change. Now their competitors must also do right by their customers and follow Domino's responsible lead," she said.
Fried chicken chain KFC refused to say if it will sign up to the same standards its competitor Domino's Pizza has adopted, but said its suppliers adhered to industry welfare codes.
Other fast food chains approached by RNZ asked the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand to speak for them; the organisation said the chicken commitment may have some details incorrect, and it was not convinced a switch to slow-growing breeds would guarantee a welfare improvement.
Domino's view is that adopting welfare standards that go further than current rules "is the right thing to do". It's the first company in New Zealand to sign such a commitment.
The footage, shot in New Zealand by Farmwatch and released by Animals Aotearoa, shows birds with splayed legs, unable to stand to reach food or water. Others struggle to walk, and some only take a few steps before sitting down again.
Macdonald said the two breeds of chickens farmed for meat in New Zealand grow so fast their legs sometimes can't support them.
From pecking through its eggshell, to ending up in a takeaway meal, a New Zealand meat chicken's life can last just six weeks. In their final weeks they gain over 50 grams per day.
"These chickens have a really miserable life because of the fast growth. They have a range of serious health problems. They're lame, they're in pain."
Chicken farm staff walk through sheds daily to remove dead or dying chickens, but with around 40,000 chickens often in one shed it can be easy to miss some. Farmwatch, the group which captured the footage said they saw three to four chickens unable to walk in the part of the shed they filmed in.
"The chickens that can't reach food and water, unless they're lucky enough to be found by a worker and killed, they're going to die on the floor of the shed," said Macdonald.
Around 120 million chickens are raised for meat in New Zealand each year and roughly a third experience lameness according to a 2011study completed by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Lameness, and the top-heavy build of the fast-growing chickens, which have large breasts, but short legs, is thought to contribute to another issue: the amount of time some birds spend sitting on litter.
"Chickens are kept in the same litter throughout their lives," said Macdonald.
"They're living in their own excrement and because of the lameness, they're sitting most of the time. The ammonia causes chemical burns on their bodies, that's why a lot of them have got red raw skin and missing feathers."
Macdonald believed the shed in the video footage was a free-range shed because it had "pop holes" in the side walls where chickens could exit during the day. With around 40,000 chickens per shed, and with some struggling to walk, she doubted whether some of them ever went outside
She knew people could be shocked at the footage, but said it was important for the public to see the reality of the poultry industry.
The group has lodged a complaint with the Ministry for Primary Industries about the lame birds. She didn't expect the complaint to be upheld. She didn't want to divulge to the public where the footage was shot in July, saying it was unfair to single out one producer for industry-wide practices.
"Sadly, this is business as usual on chicken meat farms in New Zealand. You could go into any shed around New Zealand and this is what industrial chicken meat farming is like."
The Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand's (PIANZ) Michael Brooks said each day dead or lame birds are removed from sheds and some of the birds seen in the video may have been affected between scheduled sweeps.
"NZ reports a meat chicken mortality of less than 3 percent across all meat chicken sheds on an annual basis with the current welfare protocols in place, which is low by world standards."
A lack of feathers at this age was also not unusual, he said.
"These birds are changing from chick down to feathers so some degree of areas not yet being covered is not abnormal at this age."
He said if there were welfare issues the Ministry of Primary Industries would investigate.
Macdonald had been pushing for New Zealand companies to sign up to a New Zealand Chicken Commitment, which is almost identical to the Better Chicken Commitment which Domino's Pizza New Zealand and Australia has adopted.
Animals Aotearoa last week updated the New Zealand Chicken Commitment to match the Better Chicken Commitment.
Among other things, both commitments call for a switch to slower-growing breeds, fewer chickens per square metre, at least six hours of continuous darkness a day and for the birds to be given perches.
Domino's Pizza General Manager Cameron Toomey said by 2026 all 142 Domino's stores in New Zealand would be buying chicken from suppliers that met, or exceeded those voluntary standards.
He said New Zealand companies had been lagging behind Europe in adopting chicken commitments. "We've seen what's happening overseas and decided we need to get on to this one now."
He believed the current welfare standards would change in the future.
"We can either wait, and have to join in the future, or we can be the ones that lead the way and do the right thing, because that's the right thing to do."
He encouraged other takeaway brands to sign up.
McDonalds in New Zealand follows global commitments. These include measuring welfare and adding perches, but don't currently specify a switch to slower-growing breeds.
A spokesperson for KFC in New Zealand wouldn't say if the company would adopt the chicken commitment its counterparts in France, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom had. All of those countries will implement a European version of the commitment by 2026.
The spokesperson said KFC suppliers, Tegel and Ingham's, follow current animal welfare codes and guidelines.
Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Carl's Jr, which are owned by Restaurant Brands, the parent company of KFC, also use either Tegel or Ingham's chickens.
Tegel and Ingham's, New Zealand's two largest chicken producers, asked PIANZ to speak on their behalf.
Executive director Michael Brooks said poultry meat companies had looked at the cost of introducing slow grown breeds.
"They did not find evidence to justify their introduction and until the science shows otherwise, PIANZ will continue to support their decision."
The industry was concerned with the welfare of chickens but saw some of what was included in the chicken commitment as incorrect, likely to cause misconceptions, or unproven.
He said chickens weren't subjected to 20 hours of light non-stop in New Zealand, with most companies opting for 16 hours of light and eight hours of darkness.
"Some companies do eight hours continuous and 16 light, just like humans, some others do three and three-type circulation."
Brooks also said the industry seldom reached the 38kg per square metre maximum stocking density in New Zealand. He believed the highest level reached in New Zealand was around 36kg, and this was usually only reached in the last days before the chickens were processed. Some overseas countries have a maximum limit of 40kg. Animals Aotearoa is calling for a 30kg limit.
He questioned whether the enrichment measures, or a switch to breeds which grow slower, would translate to improved welfare.
Issues with faster-growing breeds also exist in slower growing breeds, he said
"You've got to have a proof - credible welfare science proof - that this is actually making a difference to welfare and there isn't. There isn't credible welfare science on slow-growing breeds."
He said one detailed study in Canada has been done, but it was in pens. "You have to do them [studies] in commercial settings. Doing them in an academic setting is never going to give you the full detail."
Professor Tina Widowski, from the University of Guelph in Canada, who was involved in the study Brooks referred to, said it compared 12 slow-growing breeds and two fast-growing breeds.
She acknowledged there were trade-offs when doing a study in a small-scale setting. The diet of the birds may be different to what chickens ate in a commercial setting, and the overall space, management of ventilation and litter may also differ.
"On the other hand, it would be practically (expense, replication etc) impossible to do this broad comparison of different strains on a commercial scale. Comparisons using a standardised environment and management is a good place to start, but it takes a whole body of studies to fully address the issue."
There has been work done in commercial settings with fewer breeds. She said a study on a commercial farm was completed in 2020. It compared two slower growing breeds with one fast-growing breed.
The faster growing breed suffered the poorest health, had the poorest walking ability and the most hock burn from sitting on litter. This breed also demonstrated the lower levels of behaviour associated with positive welfare, such as ground scratching.
Chicken and egg conundrum
One of the sticking points to making a switch to slower growing breeds has been a lack of access to them in New Zealand.
The only commercial breeds readily available at present are Cobb and Ross, which are both fast-growing breeds.
One producer did speak to RNZ. Bostock Brothers sells free range, organic chickens and isn't a member of PIANZ. Co-owner Ben Bostock said he had been working with a hatchery to encourage the availability of slow-growing chicken breeds in New Zealand.
"Bostock Brothers is a chicken meat producer so we have no control over the genetics. The chicken breeders in New Zealand control the breeds we can access. Slow growing chicken breeds would be Bostock Brothers' choice and preference if this was an option available to us."
He said the company supported any measures and regulation changes required to bring slow-growing chickens to the country.
Domino's Pizza Cameron Toomey said the company was working with its suppliers to ensure they could meet the commitment the company had signed up to by the 2026 deadline.
Poultry industry representative Brooks thinks breeding companies would bring in slower growing breeds if "there was a demand for it which made it justifiable".
He pointed out that, with the birds taking longer to grow to processing size, slow-growing chickens would cost more for consumers to buy than faster breeds.
"Look, there are certain companies which push organic, or other areas, and a certain proportion of the population can afford them, and they will pay for it," said Brooks.
Animals Aotearoa had been in contact with food companies in New Zealand, encouraging them to adopt the commitment. She was delighted that Domino's had signed up the commitment.
"The food businesses we've been in dialogue with have been very supportive of what we're trying to do. But the problem is that we need a big chicken producer to bring in slower growing breeds of chicken. At the moment, they're just basically missing in action. They need to take action on this and catch up with what's happening overseas," she said.
Hello Fresh, a company that provides meal kits, has adopted the local chicken commitments in Europe and the US. In New Zealand it said it was supportive of chicken welfare but wouldn't say if it was going to go a step further and adopt the commitment.
My Food Bag, another meal kit company, did not respond to the question.
Macdonald hoped Domino's commitment would have a domino effect and with slower-growing breeds guaranteed to be available, other companies will follow suit.
Guidelines up for review
The code of welfare for meat chickens in New Zealand is set to be reviewed in 2022 by the The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC).
The current 2018 guidelines already flag fast-growing breeds as an area of concern. They note: "NAWAC has concerns about the welfare implications of the rapidity of chicken growth that enables harvesting at about five weeks of age and risks creating chickens that may spend part of their short lives in distress from lameness. The industry needs to take steps to ensure these trends do not create future welfare problems that will not be ethically acceptable to New Zealanders."
Advisory chairperson Dr Gwyneth Verkerk said all relevant scientific research on the welfare of meat chickens will be considered in next year's review.
The Poultry Association's Brooks thought the current process, where decisions were made based on scientific proof should remain.
"If you move away from that process, you wind up in a scenario where it becomes an emotional argument. Animal welfare is a very emotive topic and it's easy to get emotive about it."
Macdonald said Animals Aotearoa would make a submission to the review and hoped it would result in changes to breeds and conditions.
"We know that some people are going to continue to eat chickens. But we also know that Kiwis care about animals, they're against animal cruelty. When they see the sorts of suffering that we reveal from the chicken industry, they're horrified. That's why people are demanding change."