Activists battle for chicken rights

Intensive chicken farming is cruel, animal lovers say (ANSA) - Rome, October 10 - Animal activists will stage demos across Italy this weekend, in a bid to raise awareness of the suffering of chickens bred for meat .

Italy's largest animal rights group, LAV, has launched a new campaign to fight intensive chicken farming, claiming it is cruel, unnecessary, profit-driven and a risk to human health .

"We estimate that around 3,000 chickens in the European Union's 25 member states die every five minutes in indescribable and unacceptable pain and suffering," said LAV's spokesman for EU campaigns, Roberto Bennati .

LAV activists will be in central piazzas collecting signatures for a petition urging the government to support modifications to a proposed EU directive governing the intensive raising of meat chickens, known as broilers .

The proposal, unveiled this summer, was welcomed by animal rights associations as the world's first directive concerned with broiler welfare. But most complained it didn't go far enough .

The draft allows producers to keep each chicken in a space smaller than an A4 sheet of paper - even less than that given to battery hens, say animal associations .

"We want the EU directive to be modified and extended so as to reduce the density of chicken stocking," said Bennati. "We also want a ban on genetic selection." LAV's biggest complaint, like that of most animal welfare groups, is the use of selective breeding to accelerate the growth of broiler chickens .

Combined with high protein feed and growth-promoting drugs, it means that newly hatched chicks now reach full size in about 40 days - about half the time birds took to reach the same weight 30 years ago .

The unnatural growth rate puts immense strain on their hearts and lungs, while their legs are frequently unable to support their overweight bodies, causing leg problems and painful crippling .

Unlike battery hens, boilers are not raised in cages but their conditions are little better, say activists. They are born into cramped, hot and overcrowded sheds, and are forced to walk around in their own excrement, leading to foot sores. High ammonia levels can also cause blindness .

"The cramped conditions and continual exposure to artifical light cause stress and sleep disturbances, severe leg problems and heart and breathing difficulties," added Bennati .

As well as being unnecessary, say animal welfare campaigners, such conditions contribute to food safety threats .

Particular concern has been voiced over the diets of chickens on battery hen and broiler farms, most famously the salmonella scare .

Although hormonal growth-promoters are banned in the EU, it is widely believed that some farmers are using antibiotics to produce the same effect in broilers. These are likely to contribute towards the development of drug-resistant bacteria, with potentially serious consequences for animal and human health, it has been suggested .

Meanwhile, Italian livestock officials on Monday urged the government to earmark urgent funding to cope with a potential bird flu emergency .

They said 10 million euros was needed to carry out tests and increase monitoring .

The request came a day after Health Minister Francesco Storace called for swift parliamentary approval of a cabinet decree aimed at tackling a possible bird flu outbreak .

The government plans to step up border controls on poultry imports, crack down on food smuggling and boost personnel at the Carabiniere's health control division .

The decree also sets aside 50 million euros to buy 35 million shots of bird flu vaccine, if one is developed .

The World Health Organization has warned all countries to be on the alert and step up measures aimed at containing possible outbreaks of bird flu .

Both Romania and Turkey are currently culling poultry following outbreaks of bird flu .