China Is Finally Addressing Animal Welfare Issues

New standards for the transportation and slaughter of birds are a first for the world’s second-largest poultry producer.
A poultry farm in Liaocheng, China. (Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Sep 6, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Is the world’s second-biggest producer of poultry meat getting serious about chicken welfare?

For the first time, China has released official recommendations for the humane slaughter of chickens, specifically for farms in Shandong province, which leads the country in poultry production, raising 20 percent of domestic birds. As the English-language website People’s Daily Online reported, the standards provide detailed steps for handling poultry from transportation to slaughter and provide clear recommendations for minimizing the suffering of the animals, including limiting transport to a maximum of three hours and adopting the EU practice of anesthetizing birds before they are killed.

The recommendations are just that—they’re not mandatory—and they address the slaughter of chickens, not how they’re raised. Nevertheless, animal welfare advocates are praising the move as “a step in the right direction,” as Jeff Zhou of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming told The New York Times.

Yet it’s unlikely that the guidelines were a product of a spasm of concern on the part of Chinese officials over the well-being of chickens. As the Times notes: “In China, where factory farming practices and a lax enforcement of food safety codes have contributed to one food scandal after another, there is a business incentive to treat animals better.”

Animal welfare issues are a rising concern among Chinese consumers, as they are in countries around the world. But the more pressing concern is the ability of Chinese poultry producers to compete on the world market. With evidence of the birds’ “violent deaths” remaining visible even after processing and the quality of the meat from stressed, abused birds often poorer than that of animals treated humanely, poor animal welfare is hurting exports. Only the U.S. produces more chicken meat than China, yet while America also ranks No. 1 in poultry exports, China lags in fifth place.

Thus, the country’s move toward improved animal welfare practices may well be part of a longer-term strategy to appeal to conscientious consumers abroad, including in the U.S. Since 2013, the only chicken from China permitted to be sold here is chicken that has been raised and slaughtered in the U.S. (or Canada), processed and cooked in China, then shipped back to the U.S. again. If you think that seems patently absurd, you’re not alone. Even a chief lobbyist for the American poultry industry thinks the trade “probably doesn’t make any economic sense.”

Most trade watchers believe that the bizarre arrangement was an incremental move toward overcoming China’s ban on U.S. beef. Sure enough, in May the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it had conducted a follow-up audit on China’s inspection system for slaughtered poultry and found the system met U.S. standards, meaning we’re one step closer to accepting chicken raised in China for sale in the U.S.—and one step closer, perhaps, to caring more about how chickens in China are raised.