Researching this topic was strenuous, to say the least. REAL information is somewhat difficult to find, as this topic seems to be strangely polarizing. Articles, videos, and data from websites that are clearly pro poultry industry are usually produced by people in the industry. Take, for example, the fun, cutesy site ChickenCheck.in, which is run by the National Chicken Council. Information from animal welfare activists, non-profits, and other organizations that are passionate about the humane treatment of animals (including ones that aren't necessarily against meat) have well-written articles telling you all about the horrible conditions in factory farms that don't cite A SINGLE SOURCE for any of their statistics. Unfortunately, even well-known and highly regarded organizations do the exact same thing. For instance, this article from the Humane Society.
Though perhaps the ends justify the means, I did not want to fall into the trap of demagoguery. I won't weave heart-rending, but wildly exaggerated stories to manipulate you into making lifestyle changes - positive or otherwise.
I want to find the TRUTH. A novel idea, I know!
This ended up meaning a lot of extra work
sifting through USDA statistics, trying to comprehend legal documents, learning a ton of new terms, and finding the official story of how chickens are raised and treated. Then I had to go beyond that to try to find out what ACTUALLY goes on behind closed barn doors.
Needless to say, there's A LOT of info, which is why I'm focusing on the production of broilers, the chickens that are raised for most chicken meat products in the U.S.
This was emotionally taxing to write too.
The more I realized the horrific way these birds are raised, the more I find myself avoiding my computer. So though this post may be a little behind schedule, I hope you find it as shocking as I do, and take steps to reduce this suffering. Without further ado, here are seven things
I wish I didn't know about the poultry industry.
1. Chickens are highly intelligent and empathetic creatures.
Chickens have a reputation for stupidity. Many sites I visited about raising chickens in your backyard claim that anyone who spends time with chickens will realize how smart they are. Anecdotal accounts note that chickens are very smart, affectionate creatures and make great companions. However, since it's likely that you don't have chickens in your backyard, you'll probably need more than that to go on.
Let's start with something basic: the mothering instinct. One study demonstrates that chickens are emotionally distressed when chicks are in danger. It demonstrated that even when the chicks are content, if the mother knows the area is unsafe she will visibly and audibly protest. She only has physiological signs of distress when the chicks actually seem uncomfortable. This study demonstrates that chickens are capable of empathy, and will worry about their families in much the same ways we do. (1)
In fact, chicken social behavior is quite complex. They have hierarchical societies, and keep track of the individuals and relationships in their group. Certain behaviors commonly observed in domestic chickens involve not only deceiving other individuals, but being sneaky about it. This indicates that they are at least somewhat capable of seeing things from another's perspective. (2)
Some experiments have shown chickens' grasp of delayed gratification and ability to exercise self-control. Interestingly, there were limits on how long a chicken was willing to wait for their reward, which shows that the chicken is weighing cost versus gain. For instance, waiting 6 seconds for 22 seconds of feed access is worth it, but waiting 22 seconds for the same access is not. (3)
Lastly, chickens are capable of basic math. A series of experiments involving only days-old chicks demonstrated that these newborns have a sense of number, choosing larger numbers over smaller ones, and can even perform basic addition and subtraction. On a side note, this experiment reliably demonstrates the chicks' understanding of object permanence; something it takes human infants weeks to master. (4)
2. A chicken can easily live 6 years, but are slaughtered at 6 WEEKS.
Under what might be considered normal conditions for the developed world, (good shelter, healthcare, vaccinations, proper sanitation, adequate nutrition) a chicken easily lives 7 or 8 years. Many people's backyard chickens, which produce eggs regularly, live that long. A chicken starts laying eggs, on average, at about 6 months or 24 weeks. Female humans start "laying eggs," or getting their period at about 12 years old, so that seems like a good equivalence. Six weeks old for a chick, given that the relationship to human age is not linear, might be roughly equivalent to a six year old child. Despite the fact that the chicks are THE SAME SIZE as adult chickens at six weeks does not change the fact that they are still essentially babies. In fact, debeaking - the act of clipping the end of a chicken's beak to reduce aggressive pecking behavior - is no longer widely practiced as it is considered unnecessary. The chicks are killed young enough that competitive, territorial, and sexually aggressive behavior is almost non-existent. (Btw, males and females are both raised as broilers. Once again, they're killed so young that rooster behavior doesn't really surface.)
It's pretty widely known that chickens today are grown bigger and faster than ever before. (5) Because they're adolescents, their internal organs are small and are often not developed enough to maintain the increased metabolic needs of their massive bodies. Breast muscle expansion pushes on their hearts resulting in lowered cardiovascular activity, and if muscle expansion continues, it can even cause the muscles to be crushed when they run out of space in the body. (6) In a University of Arkansas article, which claimed "Chickens are a good model for understanding obesity in people," it was stated that if a similar feed efficiency occurred in newborn humans, the child would weigh 450 lbs at seven weeks old!
There are many more health problems associated with their incredible growth rate, but I'll deal with those in the next section. For now, just keep in mind that six miserable weeks is all that poor bird had.
3. Traditional chickens are VERY different from those we breed for meat.
A fast-growing chicken benefits the industry in multiple ways. First, obviously, they can charge premium rates for larger cuts of meat, or, for processed foods, you simply get more of it per bird. Second, because the birds reach "market weight" faster, their turnaround time from flock to flock is shortened. Lastly, they spend less money on feed, as selective breeding of the chickens prioritizes feed to gain ratios, i.e. the chicken builds more muscle using less feed. They're bred to have an insatiable appetite and feed about 50 times a day. (8) That is, when their legs work.
Causing chickens to grow about 6 times faster than normal results in physical changes that greatly change the birds' behavior as well. It's estimated that as many as 41% of chickens raised in these industrial settings have visible problems with their gait, indicating some degree of lameness. (6) Intensively raised chickens spend about 76% of their time lying down, (and those are the "healthy" ones,) (8) whereas chickens that are grown slowly, and have nice outdoor areas to forage, spend only 35% of their time lying down. (9) These numbers change for chickens suffering from lameness. Lame birds spend 85% of their time lying down and only feed 30 times a day. Sound birds only spend 3% of their time walking, but lame birds only manage it for 1.5% of their time. (8) Birds that are lame tend to get stepped on by other birds, resulting in injury, and are less likely to grow fast enough to meet industry standards. Either one of these problems could result in farmers culling (killing) the animal.
4. They're not kept in cages, but they ARE kept indoors in a crowded barn.
What you see in the picture here is a very typical broiler growing setup. The houses become increasingly crowded as the birds grow. There are alternating rows of feeders and drip water dispensers. The barns are kept around 85 degrees for the chickens' comfort and are ventilated to avoid the buildup of noxious ammonia fumes.
The lights are also kept on 24/7 to encourage the chickens to continue eating through the night. (10) This results in a complete removal of natural night and day cycles for the chickens, which is essential to their health. Natural sunlight encourages chickens to be active and move around more, which promotes overall health. While some barns let in natural light during the day, not all do. It's certainly not required. What's worse is that the continual artificial light causes many to suffer from chronic sleep deprivation which results in lowered immune function. (6) In fact, today's fast-growing chickens are overall more susceptible to disease than their ancestors (11)
Many in the industry will tell you that chickens are kept inside to protect them from predators, but bio-security seems like a much bigger factor in this setup. Farm workers often don multiple layers of clothing and shoe covers before entering the hen houses to eliminate the possibility of any outside bacteria entering the poultry house. With low immune function and extreme close quarters, any disease that takes hold can spread rapidly.
5. Chicken litter isn't changed ONCE in the 6 weeks a flock uses it,
and is often REUSED for new flocks.
Another issue is that chickens are in close proximity with their own waste the entire time they're being raised. Litter is put down before the chickens get there, and it is left there for the entire six weeks of their stay. Even though it's recommended to hobbyists to change litter daily, this would cost a lot of time and money on an industrial scale, so it isn't done. Articles on better poultry house management do not emphasize more frequent cleaning of the litter for one flock, but rather that you really ought to clean the floors between flocks... (12) Like, no sh*t.
Walking around in your own waste for 6 weeks is obviously a health concern for the chickens, but maybe not for the reasons you think. As was mentioned earlier, growers are quite invested in limiting bacteria and other pathogens in the poultry house. The litter is selected for absorbency and dryness. It even cakes like scoop-able cat litter. In addition, the drip type water dispensers help avoid water spills and ensure uncontaminated drinking water. Ideally, the setup is designed to minimize moisture which could cause irritation, and bacterial and fungal growth.
None of that does anything to reduce the amount of ammonia that gets concentrated in the litter. Ammonia in a gaseous state can be highly irritating and noxious. In high concentrations it can cause blindness and corrosion of the respiratory system. OSHA has set limits on workplace ammonia for the sake of the employees in the poultry house. The long-term exposure limit (think 8-hour shift) is 25 ppm. Unless you've adapted to constant ammonia exposure, you'd be able to smell it at this concentration. The limits for short-term exposure, 15 minutes or less, is 35 ppm. (13) At these concentrations, mild irritation can occur in the uninitiated, but it's theorized that many poultry farmers have grown so accustomed to it they won't even notice the smell under 50 ppm. (14) The fumes tend to be more concentrated during the winter when ventilation is reduced, and it's likely that the concentration is higher close to the ground around the chickens where workers wouldn't notice it. Millions of chickens every year are found to have suffered from respiratory infections upon post-mortem inspection. (6)
Not only is the litter not changed for six weeks, sometimes the litter stays in the poultry house for OVER A YEAR and is reused for 5 or more flocks. (15) This is partially because of increasing costs for litter. After a few flocks, what started out as something resembling saw dust, or hamster bedding now resembles dirt. The chickens that are grown to be morbidly obese get burns on their feet from the built up ammonia, and spend even less time standing. They sit laying on their breast bones that then become burned and infected from being in direct contact with moist, feces-ridden, ammonia-laden litter for weeks. (6) Some farmers use treatments on their litter (instead of changing it) that are designed to reduce ammonia levels by lowering pH. Even though these treatments have only been shown to be effective for the first three weeks of a flock, many farmers mistakenly believe they can reduce ventilation because they've treated the litter. This only compounds the problem. (16)
6. Sick or small chickens are "CULLED" rather than cared for.
The National Chicken Council likes to remind us that chickens are "healthier than ever" because they're under the care of a veterinarian their whole lives. What they don't say explicitly is that one veterinarian is responsible for over 2 million birds. (17)
Imagine this. Instead of having a personal doctor you visit to discuss your occasional reflux and vitamin D levels, there's one doctor for your entire county. This doctor doesn't have the time or resources to worry about your individual health. Instead, they're mainly concerned with whether or not you might spread some disease to the rest of your neighbors. So if you get sick you don't get treated. You don't get a nice note saying you can stay home from work. The government comes to find you and shoots you.
That's how healthcare works for chickens.
Check out this heart-warming video about how well cared for today's chickens are. Brought to you by... you guessed it! The National Chicken Council.
Now the first farmer in the video, Terry Hollis, does actually seem like he spends time making sure his chickens are comfortable, and I'm sure MANY farmers do. Notice however, that the litter is dark indicating heavy use. Many farmers hands are probably tied, and I'm sure they do their best with what are considered acceptable costs. Farmers are often in contracts with processing companies that will dictate a lot of how things will be run on the farm. The people who dictate these terms don't spend time with the chickens, and while a healthy flock will mean fewer unusable carcasses, any welfare problems that don't affect the quality of the meat are not a priority.
In stark contrast to our friendly farmer, Sasha Smith, the poultry welfare officer,
is feeding us these well-crafted lines like "We want to make sure that all the animals in the houses are having a happy life." However, the only qualifier for happiness she gives is that they can eat and drink as much as they want.
If they're suffering from not rapidly becoming obese, we take pity on them and kill them.
How merciful, Sasha. Good grief.
Oh, and did you watch the ending part about snapping their necks? She says in the video that she doesn't enjoy doing it, but feels like she must "out of respect for the animal."
I call bullsh*t. None of this is done out of respect or concern for the animal. Sasha probably tells herself what she has to in order to do her job.
Another thing the industry doesn't tell you about these "healthy chickens" is that most of them would die naturally within a very short time frame if they weren't slaughtered first. At about 5 weeks of age, mortality rates rise exponentially for every additional week lived. The most common causes of mortality at 45 days of age are heart attacks, ascites (a condition caused by their massive size and the fact that their lungs can't keep up with the amount of blood the heart has to pump to oxygenate their bodies) and leg problems. (18) When was the last time you heard of a seven year old dying of a heart attack? If you did, it probably made national news, yet this cause of death is common in broilers of a similar age.
So despite what the industry wants you to believe, today's chickens are NOT healthier than they've ever been.
7. Blatant ABUSE at slaughtering plants is widespread and unpunished.
Once the chickens are big enough to be sent to America's dinner tables, they're rapidly rounded up, and stuffed into boxes. The employees hired to do this job are paid per thousand birds, so they move very quickly. They're then put on a truck and shipped out to the processing plant. There is a law, called the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, that's been in place since we were shipping animals mainly on trains. It states that an animal is entitled to rest, food and water after 28 hours of transit. There are many exceptions to this rule, it is not well enforced, and anyway, it doesn't apply to poultry, so there's really no protection for the chickens while in transit. (19) In fact, NONE of the laws in place to protect livestock apply to poultry. So there are absolutely NO FEDERAL LAWS protecting the welfare of chickens. It's largely left up to state and local governments. Each of these has their own animal cruelty laws, but a majority of these state livestock and poultry, or animals raised for meat as exceptions. (20) So as I proceed to tell you just what goes on at the processing plant, remember that nobody's even going to get fined for doing these things.
For a complete description of the process, check out this report from the animal welfare institute. If you read it, you'll see there are MANY phases where it would be very easy to mistreat a chicken, but for the sake of brevity I will only discuss two major concerns.
One really widespread problem is ineffective stunning of chickens before slaughter. Though the National Chicken Council reports that stunning is 99 percent effective, many independent entities are aware of a widespread misuse of equipment that results in ineffective stunning. Plenty of studies have been performed on the voltage and current levels needed to properly stun a chicken, and many of these studies conclude that such high levels are likely to cause burns or scars that would make the meat unappealing. (21) The AVMA reports that many plant managers turn down the voltage on their stunners to ensure there are no problems with the meat quality. (22) If this happens, the chicken may become only partially insensible and may still be conscious as its throat is slashed and it slowly bleeds out. If the animal is completely conscious, it may raise its head to avoid having its throat cut and won't die until it's dumped in a vat of boiling water designed to loosen the chicken's feathers. The same thing can happen if a chicken is too small and its head doesn't reach the water in the bath stunner. Birds are stunned twenty at a time because of high production speed, so individual birds may occasionally be missed.
This high line speed is the cause of many other issues in the plant as well.
The legal limit for a processing line is 140 bpm (birds per minute), however, many large producers are receiving waivers for this maximum from the FSIS (food safety and inspection service) in exchange for data on microbial testing etc. (23) The maximum with the waiver is a whopping 175 bpm, which is 3 every second!!! So what's the big deal? Three things
When sick and dead birds are being sorted out by workers before being shackled, sick birds are thrown on the floor or in barrels and are then covered by dead birds. The workers have to keep up with the line, so they don't have time to euthanize birds that are not already dead. Sometimes there are so many birds on the floor that the workers have a hard time walking and end up kicking around live birds. (24)
Recently, the New Poultry Inspection System reduced the number of required USDA inspectors on the line from four to ONE. That's right, there's ONE inspector checking three birds every second for signs of disease or contamination. If that sounds impossible, well, you'd be right. Try it! Say, "One Mississippi" and imagine three birds just flew past your head. (25)
Poultry workers have to perform repetitive forceful tasks hour after hour at incredible speeds, resulting in widespread nerve damage and carpal tunnel. (26)
Here's a full list of processing companies that have received waivers to exceed line speed limits. You'll probably recognize more than one name on that list.
Case Farms - a producer that sells chicken to Popeyes, Taco Bell, KFC, and Boar's Head, among others - is particularly notorious for its poor treatment of employees and birds. Incidences of animal abuse are disproportionately high at some of their plants.
Here are just of few of the things that have happened to chickens at Case Farms plants:
Large numbers of chickens DOA (dead on arrival) after having been kept in an overly hot and humid holding area since the previous shift.
Employees throwing by the neck, or kicking live chickens
Chickens run over by trucks
Multiple birds drowned when left with heads immersed in stunner tank during a power outage. Birds upside down in shackles were left the entire time and many died.
An employee stepped on the back of a bird trying to free itself from a pile of dead birds.
An employee positioned to catch live birds missed by the automatic throat-slicer was letting live birds go right by. The inspector who saw this was not able to stop the line in time to save them from drowning in the scalder.
And these are just what happened when someone was watching. (24)
After just six short, boring and often painful weeks of life, countless birds are sent into this hellscape for a few final moments of terror and anguish. Frankly, the fact that we as a society can allow this to continue makes me lose a little faith in my species.
There are many horrific ways a chicken might suffer at the farm or at a processing plant,
and it's unlikely anything will be done about it,
unless consumers demand better oversight and a more humane product.
Here's one small (but delicious) change you can make to reduce demand for chicken and just maybe help slow the rapid generation and slaughter of countless tortured animals.
A flavorful twist on a classic, this chickpea salad recipe will fulfill all your picnicking needs! It’s a little crunchy, a little creamy and crazy good! Great for wraps and sandwiches, top your salad with a cupful, or just eat it with a fork. Whatever.
Let’s get to it!
· 2 Tbsp Vegan Mayo · 1 tsp Yellow Mustard · 1 tsp of Chili paste (or dash of cayenne) · 1 tsp Soy Sauce (this will make it lightly salty. Add more if you’re about that soy sauce.) · 1 tsp Rice Vinegar · 1 tsp Toasted Sesame Oil · 1/4-1/2 tsp garlic powder · Dash of ground ginger · 1 Can chickpeas (drained and rinsed) · 1/2 Cup Peanuts (Chopped fine) · 1 Green Onion (sliced thin) · 1 Rib of Celery (Chopped fine)
Start by making the dressing. Take the first 8 ingredients and just whisk ‘em up. Now, if you’re making a sandwich (traditional style, two pieces of bread) you’re gonna want to mash up the chickpeas a bit. They don’t need to be hummus, but you don’t want any to be completely whole as they will roll right out of your sandwich. For any other application, you can mash or leave as is, up to you. Mix in the peanuts, green onion, and celery, and you’re ready to serve!
· Mandarin Orange slices (canned, drained and patted dry and broken into small chunks.)
· Sesame Seeds
· Medium-boiled Pasture-Raised egg (8 minute egg: not runny, but soft)
· Napa Cabbage (thin ribbons, like coleslaw. You can def eat it raw.)
· Pickled radishes (thinly sliced)
Put on a sandwich or wrap with the napa cappage and the radishes, or...
Make a salad out of the cabbage and radishes (lightly dress the cabbage with rice vinegar, honey, and olive oil.)
Mother hens empathy for chicks https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003347213002054
Chicken cognition https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-016-1064-4#Sec13
Chickens demonstrate self-control https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003347205000412?via%3Dihub
Arithmetic in newborn chicks https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2009.0044
Broiler performance over time https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/u-s-broiler-performance/
Report on the effects of rapid growth on chickens' health https://www.aspca.org/sites/default/files/chix_white_paper_nov2015_lores.pdf
Chicken growth rate helps study obesity in humans https://news.uark.edu/articles/40577/poultry-feed-efficiency-research-has-implications-for-human-health
Chicken behavior in industrial settings https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10719194
Study on pasture enrichment in outdoor chicken foraging areas https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1056617119303721?via%3Dihub
Bio-security in poultry production https://ussec.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Biosecurity-Guide-ENGLISH-BR-27.pdf
Clean and disinfect poultry house between flocks https://thepoultrysite.com/articles/why-disinfect-the-breeder-house-after-depletion
Ammonia Recommendations and Regulations https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=9&tid=2#bookmark09
Respiratory hazards in agriculture https://nasdonline.org/197/d000146/respiratory-health-on-the-poultry-farm.html
New bedding recommendations https://poultry.caes.uga.edu/news/story.html?storyid=5643&story=Alternative-Bedding
Veterinary care given to broilers https://www.chickencheck.in/faq/veterinary-care/
Mortality rates in broiler flocks https://thepoultrysite.com/articles/mortality-patterns-associated-with-commercial-broiler-production
Laws pertaining to animal welfare https://www.nal.usda.gov/aglaw/animal-welfare-0#quicktabs-aglaw_pathfinder=0
Stunning voltages study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20181854
Humane slaughter guidelines https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/Humane-Slaughter-Guidelines.pdf
Line Speed Waivers https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2011-07-13/pdf/2011-17625.pdf
Reported violations of animal welfare standards at chicken processing facilities https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/FA-AWI-Welfare-of-Birds-at-Slaughter-Update.pdf
New Poultry Inspection System https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/24601-0006-31.pdf
Prevalence of Carpal Tunnel in Poultry industry https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2015/04/06/poultry-workers-cts/