The Ross 308 is one of the most successful products in consumer history, having sold tens of billions worldwide over the past decade.
With its own 15-page performance manual, low production costs, and a bargain price for buyers, it’s marketed as the world’s favorite meat chicken.
Owned by global breeding company Aviagen, the Ross 308 was bred to reach its kill weight in just 35 days and grow more than three times faster than the conventional breeds of the 1950s.
As families gather across the country this weekend, the Ross 308 will be an affordable option for the Easter Sunday roast. A whole chicken can be bought for just £2.46.
Animal rights activists claim that the cost of such cheap meat is being paid for by the chickens, which are growing so fast their hearts and skeletal structures are struggling to keep up. They want retailers to stop selling the Ross 308 and Cobb 500, the other fast-growing breeds in Britain, citing research showing these chickens have higher mortality rates, lameness and muscle disease than slow-growing breeds.
But the poultry industry warned this weekend that adopting slower-growing breeds could raise the price of a standard chicken by more than 30% as consumers face a cost-of-living crisis. That puts meat chickens – known in the industry as broilers – at the center of one of the biggest animal welfare battles since the ban on infertile battery cages for hens in 2012.
Now 325 retailers and companies across the UK and Europe, including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, KFC and Premier Foods, have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, the international initiative to phase out the use of fast-growing breeds campaigners call ‘Frankenchicksen’.
The commitment requires companies to adopt slower-growing breeds, including some from Aviagen, with higher welfare scores and lower stocking densities by 2026.
All major food supermarkets in France have joined the commitment. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in February that one of its welfare priorities was implementation of the commitment.
However, most major supermarkets in the UK, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, have yet to join the pledge and there is concern among campaigners that the cost of living crisis could be used to delay the campaign.
Environment Secretary George Eustice warned last month that the price of chicken could rise significantly due to higher energy costs and feed prices, hurt by the war in Ukraine.
Activists say poultry has been produced too cheaply and farmers need to be paid more to ensure better conditions for broilers.
On the modern plate, chicken can be cheaper than fries. A 1.4kg whole chicken from Willow Farm in Tesco costs just £2.89 (£2.07 per kg), compared to a 1.6kg bag of McCain Home chips which is £3.50 (2. £19 per kg).
Connor Jackson, chief executive of animal rights group Open Cages, which has been conducting undercover operations in broiler farms, said: “It is very sad that the lives of these animals have been worth so little. We call them Franconian chickens. Science is clear that fast-growing chickens like Ross 308 are doomed due to their genetics. These were engineered to grow incredibly fast, and their bodies just can’t handle it.”
Jackson said secret filming on broiler farms supplying major supermarkets had shown birds having trouble walking or collapsing under their own weight or dying of heart failure, and dead birds were filmed lying between the flocks. Chicken producers say they are committed to animal welfare and the overwhelming majority of birds are clean and healthy.
The modern broiler industry expanded in the US and UK after World War II. Large breeding companies used genetic selection to breed birds with faster growth rates, efficient conversion of food into muscle growth, and higher yields of breast meat.
More than 1.1 billion broilers are produced in the UK each year, with the Ross 308 being the most popular brand. Millions are raised on farms that can house more than 200,000 birds.
A 2019 study by Aarhus University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that it took a Ross 308 32 days to reach 1.8 kg, compared to a broiler developing from a 1957 commercial broiler and took more than 100 days to reach the same weight.
The fast-growing breeds help ensure a cheap and plentiful supply of meat, but in recent years research has highlighted welfare concerns. A March 2020 report by the RSPCA found that the fast-growing broilers had significantly higher mortality (including culling) and risk of lameness, and were more affected by the pectoral muscle diseases wooden chest and white stripe.
The report states: “Although current genetic selection programs may be justified by some as resulting in an animal that is a cheap, efficient source of meat and protein, there is no acceptable justification when such programs have serious inherent deficiencies and are associated with poor health and well-being.”
Andrew Knight, Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Winchester, said: “At these really rapid rates of growth, it can be difficult for the cardiovascular system to keep up with the increasing body mass. Some of these animals suffer from heart failure. Bones, ligaments and tendons also struggle to keep up with rapidly increasing body mass, resulting in some of these birds becoming severely lame.”
Animal rights group Humane League UK unsuccessfully sought a judicial review against the government over the production of fast-growing chickens, which it says breach the Farm Animal Welfare Regulations 2007, which stipulate that animals may only be bred where it is possible “without detriment.” Effects on their health or well-being”. The charity said last week it intends to appeal.
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said farmers need healthy chickens but believe fast-growing breeds like the Ross 308 can be reared with good welfare. He said there were concerns about the pace of growth, but improved farming technology and breeding would make a difference, and the industry’s introduction of slower-growing breeds and lower stocking densities would have a significant impact on the environment, as these would require more feed and more space . But it could also increase the price of fresh chicken by more than 30%.
“We are a dynamic industry and responsive to consumer demand, but several factors are at play, including a cost of living crisis.”
Rob Morton, 49, of Morton’s Family Farm in Norfolk, breeds the slower-growing Hubbard JA787 chicken for the Christmas market and hopes to expand production throughout the year. “It makes a better tasting bird because it has time to mature.”
A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said supermarkets offer customers affordable choice at high standards, including those in the Better Chicken Commitment: “All major UK supermarkets take their responsibility for animal welfare very seriously.”
A spokesman for Aviagen, which is headquartered in Alabama, USA, said: “Our first priority is and always has been the welfare of our birds. Welfare traits are an integral part of modern broiler breeding and are among the absolute top selection priorities for all of our breeds that we supply.” The spokesman said the company has bred a range of birds to meet different requirements, including the Better Chicken Commitment .
dr Tracey Jones, grocery store manager at Compassion in World Farming, said last week it was possible to implement the Better Chicken Commitment despite rising food prices. “It’s going to be difficult, but we need to eat less meat. Then maybe we could afford to pay for better quality chicken.”