Media Release

Eating less cheap chicken is the key to animal welfare, think tank says

Over a billion factory farmed chickens are being killed for consumption in the UK every year, new research from the Social Market Foundation shows today.

Around 95% of all chicken eaten in the UK is factory farmed. SMF analysis shows that the number of factory farmed chickens consumed annually could rise to more than 1.2 billion by 2032 as consumers reduce red meat in favour of chicken.

In a study sponsored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the SMF concluded that factory farming of broiler chickens, who outnumber humans two to one at any time in the UK, is by far the biggest cause for concern for animal welfare in the UK today.

Factory farmed chickens are typically tightly packed together, with around an A4 sheet’s worth of space per bird. Such conditions can lead to burns and skin infections due to a build up of faeces, breathing difficulties, and heat stress. They are also bred to grow unnaturally quickly, which can cause lameness and other difficulties with movement.

Reducing Britain’s dependence on cheap, factory farmed chicken would therefore be the most significant boost to overall animal welfare the country could achieve in the next decade, the SMF said. Alternative proteins including plant-based meat substitutes could help wean Britain off factory chicken, the think-tank said. The report is the first of three exploring the state of animal welfare, and how alternative proteins can contribute to reducing suffering.

The report calls for a concerted campaign to reduce meat consumption, as seen in Germany, where consumption has fallen 12%. That sort of reduction in chicken sales could reduce the number of factory farmed animals by 19 million. The report also calls for better data on farm welfare to hold government for account, proposing clearer information on whether animals have a life worth living so consumers understand how their food is produced.

The SMF calculations for chicken production are based on official government data and information provided to the researchers by the British Poultry Council.

The calculations show that on a typical day in Britain, there are around 120 million chickens being raised for consumption in “intensive indoor units”. That figure has increased by around a quarter in the past decade.

Based on the normal cycle of hatching and slaughter, the total number of such factory-farmed chickens killed each year is over 1 billion, or 2.74 million birds every day.

“Broiler chickens are not only the most numerous farm animal, they are also the farm animal most likely to be factory farmed,” the SMF said. “From an animal welfare perspective, reducing chicken consumption is the key objective.”

The research comes as the high court considers whether the Government has acted unlawfully in failing to properly monitor and prosecute farmers for keeping so-called “Frankenchickens” – fast-growing varieties argued to face greater risk of death and injury. The legality of growing such breeds was recently challenged in court.

The SMF report also shows how environmental and animal welfare policies could come into conflict over chicken consumption. Environmental policymakers are encouraging people to eat less red meat – most of which is farmed outdoors in higher welfare settings, but which tends to generate greater levels of greenhouse gas emissions than poultry. Such guidance may have contributed to the rise in chicken consumption – though many environmentalists are concerned about the pollution produced by large intensive chicken farms.

If past trends continue, the typical daily population of factory farmed chickens will rise to 144 million by 2032, the SMF said. Annual slaughter numbers would exceed 1.2 billion.


Aveek Bhattacharya, Research Director of the SMF, and an author of the report, said:

“We like to think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, but if we really care about reducing animal suffering, we need to pay closer attention to the food on our plates. That unwillingness to look too closely extends to the government. In compiling this analysis, we were staggered at how little robust official public data there is on farm animals’ welfare and conditions.

Nevertheless, the overall picture is clear enough. Animal welfare in the UK is first and foremost an issue of broiler chickens – simply because of there are so many of them, and they exist in such dreadful conditions.

Things are unlikely to improve unless we confront our growing reliance on cheap chicken, which alternative proteins could help us to address.


RSPCA Director of Policy, Prevention and Campaigns Emma Slawinski, said:

“Our groundbreaking report Eat, Sit, Suffer, Repeat concluded that the majority of fast-growing factory-farmed chickens have a life not worth living. The sheer scale of suffering of these animals means that drastically reducing the number farmed in intensive conditions could do more at a stroke for animal welfare in this country than anything else we could do.

“The RSPCA wants people to eat less meat and eat better welfare and we want to see 50% of all farm animals reared to RSPCA welfare standards, under our RSPCA Assured scheme, by 2030. We recognise this is ambitious but we must explore all steps we can to reduce the suffering of broiler chickens. We would welcome a government scheme to collect welfare data and ensure consumers know how animals are farmed. We know that people in this country want to do right by animals and consumer confidence and understanding about how their food is made is key to improving welfare.

“This is the first of three reports we have commissioned into the role of alternative proteins in helping improve the welfare of farm animals, and addressing how we balance the needs of animals, people and the planet. However, one thing is clear, we cannot let the growth of lower welfare chicken in this country continue to go unchecked.”



  1. The SMF report will be published at on 25th May at 7 AM.
  2. The report is sponsored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SMF retains full editorial independence.


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