One of the nation’s largest animal welfare certifications, the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), recently signaled its commitment to continuing to use genetically modified “hybrid” chicken lines that create chronic animal suffering and increase public health risks. More than in the past, GAP seems dedicated to passing off low welfare standards as the gold standard, thus helping the purveyors of factory-farmed products deceive shoppers. Details of the latest chicken study by GAP are illustrative of how this certification scheme, which does offer animals some real protections, still often functions to deceive the public.
The study, performed at the University of Guelph, was intended to help GAP establish breed criteria for its multi-tiered welfare program. However, the study included only growth-accelerated breeds known to have welfare problems, such as heart and lung stress, obesity, and musculoskeletal issues. The study failed to build in any meaningful control group, giving researchers no “baseline” of what a normal bird—that is, a non-hybrid, or “standard-bred,” bird—would look like. This leaves open the possibility that today’s allegedly high welfare chickens actually suffer more than chickens did in the first half of the 20th century.
Why would GAP omit a meaningful control group? The impression one gets is that before the study was conducted, GAP was committed to using only hybrid lines of birds that have a wide range of welfare problems, from reduced mobility to footpad lesions. GAP’s study was useful in establishing that faster-growing birds suffer more than slower-growing birds, but, strangely, it formally excluded the slowest growing birds that its own results suggest would have the highest welfare.
The omission of standard-bred breeds is telling. It appears that GAP’s forthcoming recommendations specifying which lines of birds can be considered “high welfare” will not seek to optimize welfare as consumers understand it, but rather will approach welfare as understood by industry. Instead of helping consumers identify products that meet their understanding of humane, GAP has committed to maximizing profitability by helping sell consumers on whatever industry has decided it wants to market as humane.
Reducing suffering is vitally important, especially given the limits of the change now possible. To disparage suffering reduction efforts is to forget what it is like to suffer. However, this does not give suffering reduction efforts license to deceive consumers. A tiered standard like GAP’s purports to reflect the full spectrum of what is possible, not a range that runs from bad to worse, but GAP seems to be content simply iterating on the bottom rung. To imply that GAP is doing more is to risk humanewashing.
Consider a metaphor. It’s as if GAP leadership is so afraid of finding an ace or a face card—the high welfare outcomes of a standard-bred bird—that they stacked the deck to ensure that any hands dealt would include only numbered cards. They then studied a number of rounds of poker play, watching for winning hands at the table and taking careful notes. Soon they will build their certification standards around the winning hands dealt from the numbers-only deck, as if they are the best hands in all of poker. Consumers are being dealt a pair of tens but being told it’s a royal flush.
Or think of it this way: If a doctor were to evaluate various treatment outcomes for patients with broken bones, you would expect them to begin by studying treatments that heal bones completely. If the doctor only studied treatments that heal bones partially, the doctor may conclude that patients who end their treatment with little pain but no flexibility, or full range of motion but bones too brittle for normal use, are actually achieving the best outcomes.
Analogously, the welfare improvements seen in the GAP study may amount to meaningful improvements in welfare outcomes, but without including a baseline for what is possible, we simply cannot know how meaningful the improvements truly are. The welfare gains documented for slower-growing hybrid strains that appear substantial when compared to the fastest-growing strains may be meaningful, but, put in context, they are also a clear case of attempting to make a small improvement to justify a larger injustice. Offering consumers concerned with welfare hybrid birds who suffer slightly less is the pawn sacrifice meant to preserve factory farming for generations to come.
The omission of genetically uncompromised birds is glaring and revealing. It suggests that GAP is unwilling to look at, and thus incapable of even describing, what high welfare farming looks like at all. GAP is apparently content to rank the dismal factory farm operations currently available. Consumers want to see an industry in line with basic ethical values, and GAP is offering them “the best of the factory farm,” functionally becoming an advertising agency for factory-farmed products.
The announcement accompanying the release of the limited study data claims proudly that GAP is in the process of “reinventing the modern day broiler chicken.” The modern broiler chicken, however, is the problem! “The modern broiler chicken” is another way of saying growth-accelerated, hybrid birds. It pretends that this recent, strange, and cruel form of breeding birds (through growth-accelerated hybrid genetics) is all there is, which is highly deceptive. GAP is reinventing the problem rather than ending it.
The potential value of a certification like GAP’s is that it could use its multi-tier system to dismantle big poultry in a phased and incremental fashion. Instead, it’s shoring up the use of genetically modified hybrid birds who suffer immensely (even if some suffer less than others).
Without including an optimal standard, the Guelph study results only give us a narrow snapshot of low welfare strains of birds, which are now, in proper Orwellian fashion, being referred to as “high welfare” and “slow growth.” The study can provide no information about what optimal chicken breed health looks like. Without a standard for the highest welfare, the results of the study are a farce. Any tiered certification built around them will be designed to deceive.
It’s past time for GAP to do better.
Andrew is an expert in animal welfare standards and certifications. He works closely with companies, universities, and cities to help them improve the welfare of their food supply chain.