Study of chicken welfare rules highlights need for nonhuman representation

February 8, 2024

As part of the CASJ’s mission to advance justice for nonhuman animals, we have been co-funding a research project which has been carried out by a team of academic experts in animal protection policy – Peter Chen from the University of Sydney; Siobhan O’Sullivan from the University of New South Wales, who tragically passed away last June at the age of 49; and Susan Pyke from the University of Melbourne, (funded by University of New South Wales for this project). In the last few weeks, they have published an open access peer-reviewed academic paper, rich in observations and insights, in the Australian Journal of Public Administration. RSPCA Australia have also contributed funding to the project.

The project is investigating arguably the worst area of direct animal abuse in the world today – the farming of chickens for meat. As the researchers observe in the article:

… [L]arger numbers of these sentient non-human animal move through human industrial systems per volume of meat compared with other commonly consumed domesticated animals… Because of the scale of human domination of these animals, their treatment is a significant question of our ethical responsibility over systems that use animals for human ends

As a starting point for understanding how the current situation for chickens came to pass, we have compared the evolution of UK and Australian rules on farming chickens for meat. Our researchers have established that in both the UK and Australia, the majority of these animals are farmed under ‘private’ sets of rules: in the UK, 95% come under the ‘Red Tractor indoor’ scheme, while in Australia 78% are under ‘RSPCA Approved indoor’. Obviously, private regulations are not the only influence here, as governmental regulations still apply, setting a minimum baseline for the private schemes. Thus, on paper, the Red Tractor and RSPCA Approved standards for some welfare-critical issues such as stocking density are marginally less harmful to the animals than the minimum requirements set by the respective governments. However, on probably the most fundamental problem for the chickens’ welfare – the use of very fast-growing breeds – neither of the private schemes improves on the legal minimum by prohibiting these.

Reflecting on these initial findings, I think that one of the key implications is that, in both the UK and Australia, the state has once again shown very little interest in, or concern for, the welfare of these animals. Firstly, I think this is demonstrated by the fact that both governments have set the legal standards so low that even most of the commercial interests feel the need to improve upon them. And secondly, as the paper notes, both governments establish their rules through delegated mechanisms rather than being actually stated in the legislation. This is supposed to allow for quicker updating – compared with having to amend legislation in Parliament – of the rules as a result of any scientific, ethical and technical changes. However, as it turns out, both states took 15-20 years to get round to the most recent regulatory updates.

The important role of non-state regulation in these cases is identified by the authors as an example of what is known as ‘hybrid regulation’, the emergence of which is thought by many to represent a fundamental change in the way governments operate in general over the past 30-40 years. This concept of hybrid regulation provides the framework for the paper’s analysis. This is an important approach because understanding animal cruelty policies in their wider governmental context is an essential, yet neglected, task. The CASJ’s position is that we cannot hope to understand, never mind overcome, the harmfulness of government policy towards nonhuman animals unless we understand the broader context within which animal-related policies are developed.

Hybrid regulation involves an apparent shift away from traditional, top-down state control towards an approach where those who are regulated or affected by regulations participate much more in the regulatory process. Summarising the emergence of hybrid regulation, the authors note that national governments have struggled to achieve their goals and regulate effectively in the face of increasing social complexity and globalisation over the past 50 years. Hybrid regulation is seen as an attempt to incorporate the knowledge and support of social actors by including them in the regulatory process, thus in theory facilitating more responsive regulation that is more effective, commands more social support and is more efficient in terms of state resources. In other words, hybrid regulation is seen as potentially more participatory, inclusive and democratic. However, the paper observes that the academic literature on this topic has failed to notice the significant harms endured by animals in many areas of policy-making, and similarly has failed to propose the inclusion of animals’ interests in the formulation of policies.

The concept of hybrid regulation has been part of a much broader trend that developed in academic political science and then spread to the real world of government. Therefore, the researchers’ finding that the study of public policy has generally been highly anthropocentric has major implications because this academic prejudice has facilitated the same prejudices in government.

This deep anthropocentrism also emerges from the stakeholder interviews undertaken for this research. The stakeholders tended to emphasise the benefits to consumers of cheaper chicken, while any potential benefits to chickens of using slower-growing breeds or other welfare improvements are obscured or questioned, particularly by industry stakeholders. This denial or lack of comprehension of animal sentience appears to be shared by political decision-makers, which would contribute to the lack of consideration for animals’ welfare.

In order to tackle this entrenched anthropocentrism, the authors argue for a paradigm shift in academia and politics – a deepening of the ‘Animal Turn’ – that goes beyond the inclusion of human advocates for nonhumans in policy-making, towards a system that takes animal subjectivity seriously through not just allowing but also heeding animals’ expression of their preferences, in order to incorporate those choices into regulatory systems.

You can read/download the paper (Chen, P. J., O’Sullivan, S., & Pyke, S. (2023). Hybrid governance
and welfare standards for broiler chickens raised for human consumption. Australian
Journal of Public Administration, 1–24. ) from here.

We would like to thank Peter and Sue for their superb, ground-breaking work on this project, and honour the memory of Siobhan not only for her fundamental role in establishing this project but also for her years of dedication to defending animals: she is profoundly missed.