ChickenStress: Tom Smulders about a new European research training network

Congratulations, Tom Smulders at Newcastle University and your eleven collaborators to the success in getting funding for the ChickenStress training network! These grants are so competitive that getting one is an enormous achievement in itself. And I think this is the first time ever there is one in animal welfare. Please tell us what this network is about!

The network aims to better understand the different factors that affect stress responsivity and stress resilience in laying hens. We go from the assumption that in the end, the stress resilience is based in the brains of the animals, but that the factors that determine this stress resilience are a combination of genetics, early-life experiences, and current (adult) environment. The network therefore aims to better understand how the stress response is regulated in the avian brain, but it also looks at all three factors that affect resilience. We don’t just want to understand what the effects of these different factors are, we also want to know what we can do to improve stress resilience in the future. Hopefully this will lead to new recommendations to the egg industry to improve laying hen welfare, by providing them with the resources to be more resilient to stress-full experiences.

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ChickenStress offers 14 positions for PhD students across the different participating institutions. The opportunity to do research in an internationally competitive research group is of course an important part of doing a PhD, but being a student in a European training network is not only about the individual projects. What is special about the ChickenStress project, why should people apply to this network?

The 14 positions vary widely in the scientific disciplines they represent: from basic neuroscience projects, trying to understand how the stress response is regulated in the forebrain, through more bio-informatics projects, to applied hen behaviour projects. In addition to being trained in these specialist disciplines represented by the different supervisors, who are all international leaders in their fields, the students will all also do a secondment (placement) in another lab in the network and another secondment with an industrial partner. These placements will increase the students’ scientific skill sets and their employability skills more widely. They will also see how their academic research can have real-life implications with real impact. In addition, we will have 4 network-wide events in which the students learn about different aspects of stress regulation, genomics and the interaction between research and industry, as well as present their (interim) results to each other. The aim is that the 14 students, even though they will be based across Europe, form a real cohort, who communicate with each other regularly through electronic means, and contribute significantly to the success of the network as a whole. They will be expected to organize webinars within the network, and to communicate with the public. Anybody interested in applying can still do so before May 15th 2019, by going to our provisional website: www.ncl.ac.uk/cbe/chickenstress.

With a background in poultry welfare research myself, I know how big and complex the issues in this field are. ChickenStress offers an opportunity to tackle some of these questions in a concerted way with quite a lot of resources. May I ask you to be bold and suggest one or two questions where – if successful – ChickenStress can make some real progress?

Hopes are of course always high at the start of such an endeavour, and we all know how slow and twisted the paths from science to application can be. However, I do believe that we are (still) in a crucial time with regards to the changes in housing systems from the old battery cages to whatever the new standard will be. Cage-free egg production seems to be growing very rapidly, with the USA now starting to follow the example of Europe. However, there are still very many unanswered questions about the different cage-free systems. The parts of the network that I think are the most likely to make some real progress when it comes to laying hen welfare, are the projects aimed at understanding the best route from early-life experiences (incubation, hatching, rearing) to adult laying environment. By hopefully making some very concrete recommendations about how hens should be incubated, hatched and reared, so they can cope optimally with the new adult housing environments (e.g. using different levels in multi-tier barns, using the range in free-range systems), I hope that this network will contribute to the successful implementation of these new cage-free production systems, both in terms of animal welfare, and in terms of egg production.

outdoor hens

What does IKEA have to do with animal welfare? Interview with Priya Motupalli

Priya Motupalli, Global Sustainable Sourcing Specialist sure is a cool title for an animal welfare scientist. Tell us what you do at IKEA Food Services AB!

Thanks!  It’s a mouthful, but it’s an incredible position where I get to place animal welfare at the heart of our vision for more sustainable agriculture.  My role is to develop and support the implementation of our sustainable sourcing strategy for the animal products in our range across all of the 52 markets we operate in.

This strategy consists of a set of programmes which covers animal welfare, environmental impact, and public health issues at the farm level.  The first of these species-specific programmes, the better chicken programme, was launched publicly in the beginning of this year.

Priya with chicken

What are the principles you apply to your work?

The mission of IKEA is to create a better everyday life for the many people.  I take this to heart in my own work—I’m not interested in good animal welfare or sustainable food production getting stuck in a niche market where only a small segment of the population benefits or has access to it.  My goal is to consistently find a place for animal welfare as a core tenant of more sustainable food systems.  This isn’t simple, as there are documented trade-offs—so I try and focus how animal welfare can connect to environmental or social issues to move the conversation forward, rather than not moving at all.

We also have something called the 7 Food Principles which set the general business direction at IKEA Food—although there is a principle around animal welfare, my favourite one is actually “food is pleasure.”  Consumers are so overloaded now with information on the dos/don’ts of sustainable consumption!  I think part of our job is to ensure that they can pick up something in the Swedish food market, or dine in the Restaurant, or grab something in the bistro and simply feel good about it, without having to panic about where it was sourced, or what the working conditions were like, or how the animals were raised, etc.  Food is such an intimate, enjoyable part of our lives—and making more sustainable or healthier choices shouldn’t be a barrier to this enjoyment!

Of course, providing this experience for our customers is a journey and there is a great saying by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad that “most things remain to be done.”

In which way does animal welfare science get into your job? Do you use actual research data or methods?

Animal welfare science is a critical part of the job—and one of the main reasons I was hired!  Current research forms the backbone of any animal welfare sourcing criteria we create.  However, as the science only tells you what you can do, not necessarily what you should do, our sourcing criteria is also a product of country specific legislation, feedback from NGOs and suppliers, and customer desires.

In addition, data collection and the use of this data to improve animal welfare over time is an integral part of our better chicken programme, and will form an integral part of our other species-specific programmes as well.  Alongside any input criteria we set, we have also identified key welfare outcomes that we will measure with the help of our suppliers and retail partners.  These welfare outcome measures will provide objective information on the quality of life for animals’ specific to our supply chain. In time, we can use this information to establish key areas of improvement and apply targeted interventions.

Our first data-set related to the better chicken programme came in recently and I’m keen to get it to start working for us!

If you are interested in how IKEA works with sustainability in general: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/this-is-ikea/people-planet/

If you want to learn more about IKEA’s view on animal welfare: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/doc/general-document/ikea-read-more-about-ikeas-view-on-animal-welfare__1364641255476.pdf

Follow Priya on twitter:@drpriyamots

Coverage of Better Chicken: http://5mpoultry.uberflip.com/i/976632-poultry-digital-may-2018/15?m4=

More broiler catching research

In the beginning of August, I posted about a study with Brazilian broiler catchers. One of the observations in this study was that catchers were aware that catching broilers by their legs was worse for welfare. (On the poster this is expressed as “catching by the back is better”; you can see that if you enlarge the photo).

Interestingly, this view by the catchers is confirmed by  a recently published study from Norway in which two catching methods were compared in two flocks.  Four professional catchers caught a total of 3951 birds and either caught the birds under the abdomen and carried them upright, or by the two legs carrying them upside down. Capturing under the abdomen and carrying upside down resulted in faster loading into crates, more equal and lower crate density and also tended to reduce the number of wing fractures. The study by Kittelsen et al was just published in the journal Animals.