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  • Writer's pictureAlessia Balducci & Matilde Pozzato

The Moral Price of Italian Poultry Meat

Chickens are the most exploited animal on Earth. Whether it’s intensive or organic farming, profits always rank higher than chickens’ well-being. The Groninger carried out an investigation about the reality of poultry production in Italy.

About 500 million chickens are bred in Italy, compared to 9 million cattle, 9 million swine, nearly 13 million sheeps and goats, and about 100 million rabbits. Last year, poultry meat became the most consumed meat in the country. Deemed the best choice for quality nutritional value and price, it is currently the top-to-go protein source for 59% of Italians. 

How is poultry meat produced? 

Chicken is bred in both intensive and organic farming. In intensive farming, chickens are crammed in small spaces, they are fed impossible amounts of fodder to make them so big they can’t move, and they undergo antibiotic treatment to avoid getting sick, which in turn causes problems in human health. If chickens take too many antibiotics, they become immune. When eating chicken meat, humans also risk becoming antibiotic-resistant (and we’ve seen the problems this causes during the COVID-19 pandemic). 

In the 70s in Italy, native breeds were substituted by genetically selected breeds that are more profitable in terms of production but more at risk of getting sick, hence why they undergo so many antibiotic treatments.

The non-profit organization Animal Equality Italy has run undercover investigations inside intensive farming premises and reported about the horrible conditions in which the chickens are kept. Between 18 and 20 chickens are crammed in one square meter of space, sharing a litter box that never gets cleaned, forcing the animals to live surrounded by their excrement until they get slaughtered, they explained The Groninger.

Life and death of chickens in intensive farming

As videos and pictures show, brutal practices are on the daily agendas of intensive farming. 

While still alive in the premises chickens are often beaten and kicked to death – or almost. Several investigations have collected material showing the animals with broken bones and beaks or beaten so badly that they lay on the ground, still alive, with their chests split open and their organs showing.

European regulations require workers in intensive farming to be trained on how to move and grab the animals but this is often not the case. To work faster, employees grab more chickens at once than they should and they kick them inside the trucks which can cause them to suffocate in the process, besides reporting bruises and broken bones.

During live transportation, chickens are crammed inside boxes on the truck and when they arrive at their destination they get tossed from the box to the ground, getting injured or killed.

The slaughtering is no less cruel. Farms use machines to break the chickens' necks but sometimes the process causes them to be paralyzed while still alive and only die during the actual slaughter.

Broiler breed: “prisoners of their own bodies”

98% of chickens in Italy are Broiler breed, a genetically created breed not existent in nature. This breed grows fat in little time and is designed to specifically develop the parts of the chicken for which there is more demand. They have huge breasts and their legs are too weak to support the weight. These chickens are slaughtered after 4 weeks but they would die anyway because the genetic modification causes them cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal diseases. These practices are legal.

According to official data on Broiler farms in early 2024, of 72 million chickens only 1.5 million are bred in organic farms, while 67 million are “conventionally” bred. In Italy, as in almost every other country, conventional means intensive. 

“Because of this selection, chickens are doomed to suffer,” said Matteo Cupi, vice president of Animal Equality Europe, to The Groninger. “Their own bone structure cannot withstand the exaggerated growth. As we have documented, the chickens have fractures, they struggle to move, and present damage to their internal organs.”

AIA, Amadori, and Fileni are the leading three Italian companies in the sector and they make big revenues from, among other products, poultry meat. AIA, the biggest one, reported 4.2 billion euros in turnover in 2022 and predicted further growth, while Amadori’s profits increased by 27,5%, reaching 1,7 billion. Fileni, which breeds 24 million chickens each year, makes 453 million annually.

“Rapid-growing chickens are prisoners of their own bodies,” said Matteo Cupi, “and this is a problem that exists in organic farming as well.” 

Organic farms: a morally better option? 

In organic farming, animals need to be able to behave naturally. 

Chickens need at least 4 square meters of space each to move around and the density of farming can't be superior to 21 kilograms per square meter. They should be free to stay outside where they can have a diverse diet, eating worms, bugs, and grass. As for fodder, for the most part, it has to be organic as well. If this is not possible, alternative fodder can be used but it can’t be GMOs and it can’t contain colorants, preservatives, or growth booster chemicals.

When the chickens are not outside, they are kept in indoor spaces that must respect standards of appropriate lighting and air circulation and of course, space for the animals to move comfortably. Thanks to the conditions of organic farms, chickens are healthier. If they do get sick, a veterinary exam is required to proceed with the antibiotics.

Instead of being slaughtered after 4-6 weeks of life, they have to live for at least 1/3 of their life expectancy (which is 5 to 10 years depending on the breed). Organic farming is associated with respecting the natural growth rhythm of chickens but in some cases, it is allowed to use genetically modified chickens that grow faster.

Italian giants of the poultry industry and organic meat

Animal Equality confirmed that organic branches of big corporations also breed rapid-growth chickens. So, organic or not, these animals are doomed to suffer due to the unnatural growth rhythms established by genetic manipulation.

Big Italian companies have invested a lot in organic poultry in the past few years. Based on their definition, this means “quality, respect for nature, and wholesome food”. Plus these chickens are supposedly “bred outdoors, free to roam over vast lands,” fed with GMO-free and 100% Italian food. So, even if this seems to imply that their non-organic products (so basically most of them) completely lack these qualities – which could raise questions about the actual wholesomeness of their meat –  they are also trying to be better. 

This trend is global and is expected to reach 17,34 billion US dollars by 2032 with an expected growth of 5.43%.

Fileni is the leading company in the production of organic white meat. When accused of violating European regulations on organic farming, the company denied those claims and proudly defended the ethicality of their way of working. 

The European regulation on organic farming 

According to European Rules, “organic farming is an agricultural method that aims to produce food using natural substances and processes.” For what concerns animals, this type of farming invites producers of meat to respect the behavioral needs of animals and to maintain high standards of animal welfare. 

To ensure that the rules on organic farming are being respected, the EU carries out controls and verifications. Each EU country appoints a control body or authority to carry out inspections and make sure that organic standards are enforced (in Italy the Minister of Agricultural Alimentary Politics and Forestry). Moreover, producers of organic foods need to be registered with said control body to market their food as organic. Every organic farmer is checked once a year to make sure that the standards are still being respected. With more consumers interested in purchasing organic products, after 2022 these regulations have been strengthened to ensure trust between the producers and the buyers.

Italy: consumers’ choices and prices

Italians seem to care more and more about the quality and the production of the chicken they eat. 

The Groninger conducted a survey to collect data about chicken consumption preferences in Italy. Out of 100 respondents, 70,3% eat chicken at least once a week. While 73,3% declared that they care “a lot” about the respect of animals’ rights in the breeding process, only 41,6% out of the total actually eats organic chicken at least once a week.

96% of respondents are aware of the human health risks associated with the consumption of chicken meat bred in intensive farming. However, the type of farming is the number one factor influencing purchases for only a little less than 50% of the total. The rest care more about – in order – origin, price, and type of fodder and medications administered to chickens.

This information confirms a broader trend. According to 2021 data, Europe is second in the worldwide share of organic agricultural land, although most of the countries still have to properly keep up with the demand (overall, no more than 15% of the land of each country is devoted to organic farming, and Italy ranks 4th for organic farming land). In order to support local businesses, avoid chemicals, and stay healthier, Europeans are trying to support organic products as much as they can, with an average per capita spending of 104 euros. Switzerland is putting in the biggest effort, with 425 euros spent per person. However, price plays a big role. 

As shown by a 2021 survey, 35% of respondents are willing to spend up to 5% more for organic products, while 29% are just unwilling to pay more. This makes sense when, up until now, the price difference is still very significant.

What can consumers do? 

It’s certainly not easy to navigate this market and make conscious decisions about our eating habits. It’s also hard to collect information about the behind the scenes of chicken production. Not everybody can afford organic – and so more expensive – chicken, especially when it doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, more sustainable, and more respectful of animals. 

“For us, the team of Animal Equality, organic is not an animal-friendly alternative. In our view, the only choice not to harm chickens – and other animals – is to prefer a 100 % plant-based diet,” commented Matteo Cupi. 

While it is unrealistic to expect everyone to opt for a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is also important to be aware of the consequences of our choices. Increasing our poultry consumption will increase chicken suffering, as companies will respond to the market demand by breeding more animals and developing crueler methods of farming to produce more, faster, and at cheaper costs. 

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