Ensuring welfare of broilers poses challenge

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Suzanne Millman, PhD, said veterinarians can serve as a bridge between animal producers and the public for dialogue on animal welfare.

Dr. Millman, an associate professor of animal welfare at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, delivered the statement during the opening session of the North American Broiler Welfare Symposium, a daylong series of sessions at the AVMA Annual Convention about the welfare of chickens raised for meat.

The symposium was part of the annual meeting of the American Association of Avian Pathologists. Its aim was to help veterinarians determine how broiler husbandry practices affect welfare in chickens and what veterinarians can do to improve the situation.

Dr. Millman also encouraged symposium attendees to work toward welfare goals that can be explained to the public. She said science is only one important tool for assessing the welfare of broilers.

Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, said veterinarians are key players in establishing common ground and have to find ways to communicate effectively with people with whom they disagree, to identify and implement good solutions to animal welfare problems. She also said the fact that husbandry practices used 40 years ago were acceptable, appropriate, or important at the time does not guarantee their acceptability, appropriateness, or importance today.

"We need to look at animal welfare challenges as an opportunity to explain what we do and why," Dr. Golab said. She added that veterinarians should strive for incremental improvement.

Dr. Michael P. Martin, assistant professor of poultry health management at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, talked about genetics, breeding, and the implications for broiler welfare across breeds. Veterinarians have to safeguard the health of chickens, avoid situations that create aversion and fear, and support opportunities for chickens to express normal behaviors, he said.

Dr. Martin said management systems do not always allow birds to achieve their genetic potential, and past management practices may no longer work. He said potential exists for creative solutions to challenges through research that explores management practices, and good management typically improves the welfare, health, and productivity of chickens.

Dr. Donna L. Hill of HatchTech Incubation Technology in Mountain Home, Ark., described hatcheries as a cradle for the first few hours of a chick's life. Hatchery workers should strive for chick comfort, she said, and monitoring welfare throughout a chicken's life improves production and profit.

Hatchery automation has increased in recent years, and veterinarians should give special attention to areas in which humans interact with chicks, Dr. Hill said.

Dr. Millman said animal welfare science involves walking a fine line between avoiding anthropomorphism and denying traits common to humans and other animals. For example, she noted, studies have indicated hens can teach one another to complete tasks, and roosters use various vocal cues to alert hens whether a predator is in the air or on the ground, or whether good or poor-quality feed is nearby.

As long as people want poultry products, Dr. Millman said, attention to housing systems should focus on fixing flaws in each system, rather than debating which system is best.