HomeSafetyWelfare of chickens and laying hens, new EFSA opinions

Welfare of chickens and laying hens, new EFSA opinions

EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has published two scientific opinions on the animal welfare of broilers and laying hens.

The dangers to which animals incur and the causes that produce them and the criteria for preventing or mitigating the harmful consequences have been identified. The legislative proposal on the matter from the Commission is expected for the second half of 2023.

The legislative process on animal welfare

The European Commission, on June 30, 2021, decided to start a legislative process aimed at eliminating cages for a series of farm animals. (1) This choice was made under the impetus of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) 'End the Cage Age' (2), which has collected more than a million signatures. The process should be completed by the end of 2023 with an update of the relevant legislation. (3)

Interest in animal welfare and the transition to more sustainable farming systems is also part of the strategy Farm to Fork (4) of the European Union. In this article we deal with the welfare of broilers and laying hens. EFSA has issued two opinions (5) in which it assesses what are the dangers for animal welfare in the different breeding systems and what actions to implement to prevent or mitigate these effects.

Breeding of chickens and laying hens

The European Union is among the major producers of poultry meat. We raise about 6 billion broilers a year for 13,3 million tons of meat. In 2021, an estimated 376 million laying hens were raised for 6,4 million tonnes of eggs.

Most of the birds is reared in furnished cages while only 7% of the laying hens are reared organically.

Method and preliminary information

The data used to draw up the two opinions, they were obtained from already published scientific studies (after 2010 for broilers and after 2004 for laying hens) and from questionnaires sent to the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders (EFFAB).

They have been singled out the specific behaviors of the animals and the space necessary to carry them out. To evaluate which is the best breeding system, the percentage of chickens that are able to perform these behaviors was considered.

The key factors of animal welfare in chickens and laying hens

The consequences on animal welfare are defined by EFSA as 'the change in well-being that results from the effect of one or more factors'.

The factors that influence it are:

  • the space available for each animal,
  • farm size,
  • forced housing in cages,
  • light management,
  • the presence of structural enrichments,
  • the possibility of accessing the external area.

Three breeding systems

Systems of breeding most widespread in Europe are three.

  • Furnished cages. Cages equipped with litter, nest and perch are the most used breeding system. Each animal has a space of 750 cm² and the cage houses 4 to 20 animals. Freedom of movement, such as flapping, stretching and jumping is limited.
  • Single level systems. These are sheds with no architectural elements other than feed lines, nests and bedding. The density is 8-10 birds per m². The lack of elevated structures prevents the animals from exploring and jumping.
  • Multilevel systems or aviaries. In these farms, chickens and hens can move freely in the various levels, fly and jump. The density is 8 birds per m².
    The previous two systems can allow access to the covered veranda, an outdoor space.

Recently more sustainable and appropriate systems have been developed to ensure the animal welfare of chickens and laying hens. For example, the mobile stabling is a small farm, it can accommodate from 200 to 4000 heads, combined with external access and can be easily moved by towing a tractor. It is usually used in the organic method, where access is mandatory and the maximum density is 4 animals per m². (6)

Consequences on animal welfare of chickens and laying hens

The consequences The most relevant constraints found by EFSA experts for broilers and laying hens are:

  • bone injuries, especially to the keelbone (an extension of the sternum that serves as an attachment point for the pectoral muscles),
  • stress of group that can escalate into harmful pecking or competition for resources, accumulation and suffocation,
  • inability to avoid unwanted sexual behavior,
  • inability to perform exploratory or foraging behaviors,
  • stress from isolation,
  • predation stress,
  • problems at rest due to lack or insufficiency of perches or other elevated sites,
  • movement restrictions,
  • inability to perform behaviors of comfort,
  • skin diseases,
  • soft tissue injuries and damage to the integument,
  • stress from hunger.

For chickens from meat the following risks are added:

  • stress cold or hot,
  • gastrointestinal disorders and other infectious diseases due to poor quality feed or bad environmental conditions,
  • prolonged thirst,
  • umbilical disorders in chicks,
  • sensory understimulation or overstimulation.

Stress, fear and pain

The risks listed above cause stress, frustration, fear and pain in animals. The high density leads to clashes between the animals and therefore to the risk of fractures, the impossibility of performing natural behaviors for birds such as dust bathing, preening, stretching of legs, foraging and jumping.

The cages increase the impossibility for female hens to escape the aggressive behavior of males. Broilers also run risks related to their rapid growth.

The recommendations

The elimination of cages mitigates most of the listed risks. Density should also be reduced, from 41 kg/m² today (7) to 11 kg/m² for broilers and 4 heads per m² for laying hens. The ratio of males to females should be 1:10 to mitigate aggressive intercourse by males.

The resistance of bones can be improved through genetic selection, higher quality feed and allowing more movement for animals. Access to food and water must always be guaranteed.

The mutilations a beak and claw should be avoided as they cause pain and long-term effects. Pecking and scratching can be prevented if husbandry policies are appropriate. It is important to ensure an appropriate brightness that is separated by at least 7-8 hours of total darkness and exposure to natural light should be favoured.

Alessandra Mei


(1) Legislative process of the European Commission

(2) European Citizens' Initiative End the Cage Age

(3) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Animal welfare, open to public consultation to change EU legislation. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 20.10.2021

(4) Dario Dongo, Martina de Nobili. Analysis Farm to Fork, the strategy presented in Brussels on 20.5.20. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 24.5.2020

(5) To consult the two scientific opinions:

  1. EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (AHAW). SS Nielsen et al. (2023). Welfare of laying hens on farm. EFSA Journal 2023;21(2):7789. 21.2.2023 Doi:
  2. EFSA AHAW, SS Nielsen et al. (2023) Welfare of broilers on farm. EFSA Journal 2023;21(2):7788. 21.2.2023. Doi:

(6) Organic farming standards, Reg, (CE) 889/2008, Art. 12.

(7) Current broiler welfare standards allow for a stocking density of 33kg/m² but through derogations an additional 6kg/m². Article 3, par. 2,4 and 5, Council Directive 2007/43/EC

(8) Animal welfare standards for laying hens are set out in Council Directive 1999/74/EC.

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Graduated in Law from the University of Bologna, she attended the Master in Food Law at the same University. You participate in the WIISE srl benefit team by dedicating yourself to European and international research and innovation projects.

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