When you’re ordering butter chicken at an Indian restaurant or biting into a chicken sandwich at a fast food joint, do you pause to consider the actual meat? You might, if you were aware of its origins.

Chicken is the most widely consumed meat around the world. World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organization, reports that approximately 60 billion chickens are reared for their meat each year, compared to 1.5 billion pigs, half a billion sheep, and 300 million cattle — and demand is growing. In Canada, chicken consumption increased by 26 percent between 1996 and 2016.

“Mass production of chicken is one of the biggest causes of animal suffering in the world,” says Josey Kitson, the Executive Director of World Animal Protection Canada.

Chickens are slaughtered about six weeks after birth. During their short lives, says Kitson, most of them live in miserable conditions. Farmed industrially, they’re confined to sheds with little or no natural light. The sheds are barren warehouses with no perches or structures to enrich the lives of the birds..

These are the worst imaginable conditions for them. Chickens are intelligent animals who can distinguish between similar-looking people and recognize the passage of time. They experience emotions such as empathy and anxiety, and are innately curious and active. In a natural setting, chickens move around a lot and enjoy pecking and perching.

Due to their harsh living conditions and their overly large size — they’re bred to grow faster and larger than normal —  billions of chickens suffer from heart, leg, and skin conditions. They can also have breathing difficulties and suffer constant distress.

World Animal Protection is working to improve the lives of chickens. The organization was delighted when, in March, Restaurant Brands International, owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons, agreed to source broiler chickens from facilities that have better lighting and  enrichments like  perches to sit on, and hay bales to peck. Through its Change for Chickens campaign, the organization is now calling on KFC to follow suit.

“We understand that the chickens are farmed for their meat and we’re not trying to stop that,” says Kitson. “But we’re asking producers to give the birds better lives by allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviour.”

Restaurants are paying attention to the welfare of chickens because it’s starting to matter to consumers. “An increasing number of people want to know more about where their food comes from,” says Kitson.

Kitson is hopeful that this trend will continue. She urges Canadians to sign the organization’s online petition calling on KFC to change its practices, and to ask questions at restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets. “Sign the petition at worldanimalprotection.ca and find out more about where your meat comes from,” says Kitson. “Then use your purchasing power to make a difference.”