How is Denmark leading the way for chickens?

A photo of a man in a baseball cap wearing a blue overall, half kneeling on the floor of a chicken shed, cradling a white-feathered chicken in his hands. He is looking at the bird. Behind him are hundreds of other chickens.
The top half of a white-feathered chicken, side-on, with her head semi-profile.

My current binge-watch on Netflix is Borgen, a story of intrigue amongst politicians and media people set in the Danish parliament. I’m especially enjoying this as I was lucky enough to meet recently with a real-life version of one of those politicians (without the drama 🙂) – a champion for animal welfare – when I was travelling for a conference in Europe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Earlier this year, the Danish parliament announced a world-first agreement to help chickens bred for meat. Denmark is one of the leading countries when it comes to improving chicken welfare. They have one of the highest numbers of food companies that have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment – pledging to shift to healthier breeds and better living conditions for the chickens they sell for meat. Now, an agreement has been signed ensuring the Danish government will not buy and serve meat from unhealthy, fast-growing chicken breeds in its kitchens from now on, breeds that have suffering encoded in their DNA.

In addition, three other things have been agreed:

  1. the Danish government will push for a total ban on these unhealthy breeds in the European Union.
  2. There will be a national state-funded campaign educating people on why it’s important for chickens to grow at a slower, more natural rate.
  3. A working group is being set up to work out how to improve chicken welfare.
Close-up of a man with a beard and a woman with short hair, standing inside the empty debating chamber of the Danish parliament with the seats and gallery visible.
Carl Valentin and Marianne Macdonald

Carl Valentin is a member of the Socialist People’s Party, also known as Green Left – part of the Green European Greens. They are the largest opposition party and are well known for pushing and achieving policies that help improve animal welfare and increase environmental protection. Carl is the party’s agricultural spokesperson and has been instrumental in achieving this progress for chickens.

I wanted to find out how this came about and whether we could help make the same thing happen here in Aotearoa.

Legislation was passed in Denmark recognising the sentience of animals. But policy without action doesn’t help animals, so the treatment of every species of farmed animal has started to be examined at a government level to see if it meets the needs of beings who can experience both positive and negative experiences. Chickens bred for meat were the first species to be looked at.

This was because Danish animal advocacy organisations, such as Anima International, have done a fantastic job of educating people on the suffering of chickens.

There have been dozens of media articles about the chicken issue and that coverage really got people talking about the need for a change of breed. In fact, another organisation, Dyrenes Beskyttelse, did polling and found that the issue people cared most about was a ban on unnatural fast-growing breeds, breeds that have been called ‘Turbochickens’ in Denmark.

To see things for himself, Carl Valentin went to visit a chicken shed and wrote about his experiences.

 On the left is a photo of a man in a baseball cap wearing a blue overall, half kneeling on the floor of a chicken shed, cradling a white-feathered chicken in his hands. He is looking at the bird. Behind him are hundreds of other chickens. On the right is a screenshot of a Facebook post in Danish from the account of Carl Valentin.
Carl Valentin and his Facebook post, in Danish, about the visit

Here is a translation of some of what he said:

I have visited a Danish chicken factory. It’s an opportunity few citizens get and therefore I feel a duty to share what I witnessed. In this massive, stuffy, foul smelling shed they produce twice as many chickens in a year as there are elephants in the entire world …

These chickens grow at an incredibly fast rate in just 35 days they go from weighing 40 grams to over 2 kilograms…This is effective if the goal is to produce the most meat as quickly as possible but efficiency comes at a cost. These chickens have been bred to grow so rapidly that their organs and legs can’t keep up, and reports show that three out of four cannot walk normally by the time of slaughter….

In the pictures from my visit, the chickens are only 13 days old. Some might think that the production I visited must be an extreme example but it’s not, quite the opposite actually. It’s not an unannounced visit, which would be more representative…

On the left is a photo of two men in blue overalls, seen side-on, standing looking at hundreds of white-feathered chickens in a shed. On the right, thousands of chickens are on the floor of a shed, with hardly any floor space visible. Lines of feed trays and water run along the length of the shed.
Carl Valentin visiting a chicken farm

“I know things would be easier if I acted like other politicians, took some cute pictures, and posed with a “thank you for the visit” smile. But I refuse to defend the indefensible. Each and every little chicken is an individual with their own experiences of the world and beyond the physical suffering they endure, we provide them no opportunity to fulfill their strong psychological needs for play and stimulation that they naturally feel.

If you ask me this has gone too far. And seeing it with my own eyes only strengthens my stance this is not how food production should occur. It’s unethical. And I actually believe that the majority of Danes would agree. And no, it’s not the individual farmer who is responsible…It is us the politicians who must set a limit on the horrific conditions animals can be subjected to in this country.

Strong words!

While animal sentience was included in New Zealand’s legislation in 2015, improvements in the way animals are treated have been much slower to take place. As Carl stressed to me, policy on its own doesn’t help animals.

To follow Denmark’s lead, we need increased public awareness of the suffering of chickens bred for meat, including journalists taking an interest in the issue. We need more food businesses to demand a shift to healthier chicken breeds, and then maybe we’ll start to play catch up with law change, following on behind Denmark.

To achieve this, we need your help. Please support our work to stop the suffering.

Leave a Reply