Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist

By the National Chicken Council - The National Chicken Council (NCC) is the association representing vertically integrated broiler producer-processors. NCC recommends the following guidelines to its members to assure the humane treatment of animals and to promote the production of quality products.
calendar icon 7 April 2003
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Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist - By the National Chicken Council - The National Chicken Council (NCC) is the association representing vertically integrated broiler producer-processors. NCC recommends the following guidelines to its members to assure the humane treatment of animals and to promote the production of quality products.


Domestic animals are adaptable to a variety of conditions. Today’s chicken has been purposefully selected to thrive under modern management. We believe current good management practices that avoid destructive behavior, prevent disease, and promote good health and production, are consistent with the generally accepted criteria of humane treatment.

The specific applications of these criteria are spelled out in the NCC Animal Welfare Audit Checklist, which should be used to assess compliance with these Guidelines. Those integrated chicken producer-processors endorsing these Guidelines should designate a management person or group within the company responsible for promoting adherence to the Guidelines. Practices that promote good health and welfare of broilers are categorized as follows:

  • Education, training and planning
  • Hatchery operations
  • Proper nutrition and feeding
  • Appropriate comfort and shelter
  • Health care (prevention of disease, or rapid diagnosis and treatment)
  • Ability to move about and display most normal patterns of behavior
  • Best practices on the farm
  • Catching and transportation
  • Processing
  • Breeder operations (if the subject operation includes breeders)

I. General Conditions and Practices Applicable to All Segments

A. Education, training and planning

  1. Every company that adopts these Guidelines should have a person or a management group in charge of promoting adherence to the Guidelines.

  2. Each company must have a documented training program for all employees involved in handling live animals. All employees involved in handling live birds must receive training in the appropriate section(s) of these Guidelines to allow them to do their jobs in accordance with the Guidelines.

  3. Each company and each producer should have a written plan for disaster response and recovery, including, but not limited to, structural damage and water, feed and electrical outages. Producers should have current contact information for local emergency services, and each company must provide each producer with a “telephone tree” of emergency contacts at the company.

B. Hatchery operations

  • Conditions that optimize hatchability and minimize early mortality are also favorable to good welfare of hatching birds. Control of climate and sanitation from the hatching process through delivery should be monitored to assure maximum protection of newly hatched birds. The company must have a temperature range goal for the holding room in the hatchery (a minimum of 72 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended) and must have a working thermostat to ensure that the target temperature range is maintained. The company should also have an alarm system or regular monitoring system in use to alert hatchery personnel to failure of critical systems (heat, electricity).

  • Both manual and automated processing systems should be designed, maintained, and operated in a manner that prevents injuries to the chicks.

  • Each hatchery shall have employees who are charged with recording and reporting chick injuries to the management so that corrective action can be taken to avoid preventable injuries. Corrective action should be recorded. Injuries should be rare.

  • Chicks judged as unlikely to thrive should be removed and euthanized prior to disposal, and “pipped” eggs should be properly culled and destroyed. All handling of chicks, including vaccination, sexing, and delivery, should be done to avoid injuries.

  • Recommended Practice: Euthanasia of pips and culls is best accomplished by instantaneous mechanical destruction (maceration). Culls may be destroyed with a properly designed and operated carbon dioxide system precharged with 90% of CO2 in the chamber in which birds are kept until irreversible loss of consciousness occurs. Other euthanasia systems must be validated for humaneness.

  • Beak trimming is not allowed in broilers.

C. Proper Nutrition and Feeding

  • Diets should be formulated and fed to prevent all signs of nutritional deficiency and to promote good health and normal maintenance and production (weight gain, egg production).

  • Recommended Practices: Feed composition must be research-based to meet nutritional needs of the animals. Companies should consider the recommendations of the National Research Council and utilize current research to ensure that the diet is adequate to the needs of the broilers.

  • Feed and watering systems should provide adequate access for all birds. Signs of unequal access should result in a change in feed presentation or special provisions for birds denied access.

  • Generally speaking, commercial breeders and broilers should not lose weight. Decisions to modify the rate of weight gain (for production or health related reasons) are acceptable.

  • Water should be made available in adequate quantities for normal hydration, health, and productivity.

  • Feed mills should meet good manufacturing practices.

D. Appropriate Comfort and Shelter

  • Housing should be adequate to protect the birds from anticipated environmental conditions, including normally expected levels of heat, cold, and precipitation, as well as from predatory animals such as hawks and foxes.

  • Premises should be maintained in a clean and orderly fashion.

  • Vermin should be controlled through the use of bait stations, traps and other appropriate and effective measures.

  • Biosecurity procedures, such as bactericidal foot baths for visitors, should be in place.

  • Ventilation systems should be of adequate design and should be maintained and operated in such a manner to provide quality air at all times, including the provision of oxygen, removal of carbon dioxide and noxious gases, and reasonable control of humidity. Each facility should have a written protocol for minimum ventilation requirements, including temperature and dust control; heating program; and static pressure (when applicable).

  • Ammonia in the atmosphere should not exceed 25 parts per million; 10 parts per million should be the goal.

  • Moisture in litter should not exceed 35 percent (loosely compacted when squeezed in the hand); litter, ventilation, drinking systems and feed formulation should be managed to minimize foot problems. Visible cracks and ulcers on feet should be avoided. Where used, slats and wire floors should be well maintained, and animal waste removed on a regular program.

  • A reliable system or safety devices should be in place to alert caretakers to power failures or ventilation system failures; emergency procedures should be in place to provide adequate ventilation in the event of a power failure.

E. Health Care: Prevention of Disease, or Rapid Diagnosis and Treatment

  • Qualified veterinary care must be available.

  • Each company must have a written health plan developed in consultation with a veterinarian to include at a minimum: vaccinations; daily checks on bird condition; mortality/morbidity monitoring; identify signs/behaviors triggering vet call; measures taken to prevent transmission of disease among flocks and to control avian pathogens in light of health status of the previous flock.

  • A layout period of 10 to 14 days between flocks is recommended but may be modified based on health status of the flock, weather emergencies, litter replacement, total cleanout, and/or utilization of practices and technologies that lower the health risk to the birds. Approval of the veterinarian is required before the layout period is shortened.

  • Companies must monitor feed intake, bird health including eye and leg health, and lameness

  • Chicks should be vaccinated against common poultry diseases.

F. Ability to Display Most Normal Behavior

  • Birds should be allowed to roam freely throughout the growing area. Bird welfare at different stocking densities will depend on access to feeders and drinkers, lighting program, type of housing, ventilation system, feeder/drinker equipment, litter management, and husbandry, but density shall not exceed 8.5 pounds live weight per square foot.

  • Birds that exhibit stunted growth and obvious gait defects that limit an individual bird’s ability to move about or access feed and water for normal growth and development (stage 4 or 5 on the modified Kestin gait score*) should be humanely euthanized.

  • The use of continuous subdued light (with appropriate acclimation) is not detrimental to welfare, provided enough light is available for inspection and normal behavior. Recently developed programs of light restriction, with periods of darkness, are also acceptable.

  • When continuous or near-continuous lighting is used, lighting should be subdued for most of the period in which the lights are on.

* Garner et al 2002 (Stage 4: “Bird remains squatting when approached or nudged . . . the bird can walk when picked up by the observer and placed in a standing position, but squats immediately following one or two steps . . .” Stage 5: “The bird cannot walk . . . it may attempt to stand when approached but is unable to do so, and when placed on its feet is unable to complete a step with one or both legs.)

G. On-Farm Best Practices

  • Flocks should be inspected at least twice a day.
  • The light level should be adequate for inspection, and the caretaker should pass close enough to the birds to observe them.
  • Any dead birds should be removed; and all feeding, drinking, and ventilation systems checked for proper operation on a daily basis.
  • The following are acceptable methods of on-farm euthanasia:
    1. Rapid decapitation.
    2. Rapid cervical disarticulation.
    3. Displacement of oxygen with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or other approved gas.
    4. Any other American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) or American Humane Association (AHA) approved method.

H. Catching and Transportation

  • Whenever birds are handled for any reason, including vaccinations, treatments, and movement to new facilities or to processing, handling should be accomplished in such a manner as to avoid injuries. In catching, inversion of the birds (holding them by the feet with the head down) is believed to be the position in which the birds are the calmest and least likely to injure themselves by flapping and struggling. The number of birds in the catcher’s hand depends on the size of the bird and should not cause injury to the birds. The maximum number of birds per hand is five.

  • Abuse of the animals should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Companies should have programs in place to encourage appropriate handling of birds by catching crews.

  • Transport coops should be appropriately sized and should be in good repair so that birds cannot escape during transit.

  • Density in the coops should permit the birds to sit during transport without being on top of one another (in a single layer).

  • During transport and holding, birds should be protected from extremes of heat and cold and should be provided with adequate ventilation.

  • Holding times should be kept to the minimum consistent with good processing practices.

  • The number of animals dead on arrival (DOA) at the plant should be minimized.

  • Any company that employs mechanical catching systems should develop protocols to ensure humane handling of birds. Goal is to ensure that mechanical catching is at least equal to hand-catching in terms of bruises, injuries, and DOA’s.

I. Processing

  • Withdrawal of feed and water is necessary for sanitary processing procedures and food safety. Feed and water withdrawal should be kept to the minimum level consistent with good processing practices.

  • Properly designed and maintained facilities should be provided for bird delivery to the processing plant. Best management technology, such as adjustment of light levels, should be in use to help keep birds calm. Personnel should be carefully trained in proper delivery and handling techniques.

  • Holding areas should be equipped with an adequate number of fans to ensure proper ventilation for birds.

  • Stunning and killing equipment should be constantly monitored to insure proper functioning for humane processing. Birds should be insensible to pain when killed. A post-stun posture that includes arched neck and wings tucked in is visual evidence of an effective stun. Backup personnel should be employed at the killing station to euthanize manually any bird not properly killed by the equipment.

  • All birds should be dead before entering the scalder. An uncut “red bird” after the picker is a sign of system malfunction.

  • Companies have a strong economic incentive to avoid broken legs and wings because these cause product downgrades. There is no practical way to measure broken legs and wings on live birds before processing, but personnel and equipment should handle birds in a manner that minimizes broken legs and wings. Any spike in broken legs and wings on carcasses (slaughtered birds after the picker) should be investigated for systemic causes.

II. Special Considerations for Specific Classes Of Meat-Type Poultry

A. Breeder Pullets and Cockerels

Breeder pullets and cockerels are younger females and males, respectively, in flocks used to produce the eggs that become broilers (young meat chickens). Breeders have special requirements that must be met in a humane manner. These include:

  • Feed. Adequate access to feed and water must be provided. Because modern meat-type chickens grow rapidly, obesity can be a serious health and welfare problem in breeders. Moderation of feed intake to maintain frame size and body weight consistent with good health and production are acceptable management practices promoting good welfare.

  • Water. Moderated feeding programs may result in over-consumption of water, which can adversely impact welfare. Restrictions on excessive water intake on off-feed days, usually by limiting water availability to certain times of the day, with due consideration to environmental conditions, promotes overall welfare and is an acceptable practice.

  • Housing. Breeder male natural behavior has necessitated practices such as the gradual introduction of males to breeder houses and subsequent addition of fresh males, in order to maintain productivity and promote welfare. Provision for separate male housing for these extra males is therefore necessary. These facilities should be managed in such a way that social groups are small and stable.

  • Management. Any company that practices the gradual introduction of males into the breeder house will have a plan to do so in a manner that promotes overall flock well-being. Adequate space in nest boxes must be provided for hens.

  • Handling. Certain procedures that may cause short-term stress are necessary for the long-term welfare of the flock. Most of these procedures are to reduce injuries among birds. The following are examples of acceptable management practices promoting long-term welfare. Other similar practices may be acceptable, and the following is not intended to be a definitive list of acceptable practices.

    1. Precision beak trimming.
    2. Clipping the inside toe(s) of cockerels.
    3. Dubbing the combs of cockerels

    These practices should be accomplished to minimize stress and should be performed by well-trained personnel using properly designed and maintained equipment. Beak trimming, where performed, should be performed with a heated blade or laser, should be conducted at 10 days of age or less, and should remove no more than the tip of the beak.

Further Information

To read the full document and checklist please click here (PDF format)

Source: National Chicken Council - March 2003

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