Factory Farmed Broiler Chickens
Chicken breeds are chosen for the characteristics that maximize profits–at the expense of the birds’ welfare. The hens used for egg production are laying hens, and broilers chickens are raised for meat. Laying hens will be slaughtered for pet food or for processed foods like chicken soup, while broilers are the chickens sold in supermarkets and restaurants in unprocessed form.
The National Chicken Council has a web page where they report that, in every year from 2006 to 2011, the market weight of the birds has gone up, and the mortality rate has gone down. The average weight has doubled since 1940, reaching 5.8 pounds in 2011. Then they quit reporting the numbers. It could be that the mortality trend has reversed, and that that’s why they stopped the annual updates. Perhaps the increasing weight of the birds got to the point where it became too great a detriment to the birds’ health for them to continue to have reductions in mortality. That sounds very plausible to me, but of course it’s pure conjecture. Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to updating the page. I emailed them at their general address, asking that they do so, and they didn’t reply (or update the page). It could be that they get a lot of emails and can’t attend to them all, so I emailed them again, this time to four relevant email addresses, and I included a link to this post. The subject line should have gotten their attention: Blog Post Criticizing Your Statistics. I invited them to post a comment, and got no response.
(I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so let’s set aside questions about the character of people who would defend and promote raising animals genetically doomed to misery in an environment that doesn’t support their welfare beyond the minimums necessary for profitability, and assume that the numbers reported by the National Chicken Council on their website accurately report the data they collect. But I have to ask, wouldn’t people who make money directly by the means described below (which is to say, factory farmers) be inclined to, shall we say, be less than forthcoming about mortality rates? Is it not a reasonable supposition that the numbers of dead reported are under-counted? And I wonder about the numbers of birds that are sick or injured when they reach the slaughterhouse. Why doesn’t the Chicken Council collect that data and report those numbers?)
Here are two videos. The first is the industry’s version of reality. The second is an undercover investigation by Compassion Over Killing. I worked on this post a week ago. In finishing it today, I discovered that some of my links were no longer good because those pages have just been replaced with a new investigation, this time of Pilgrim’s Corp., the world’s second largest chicken producer. The video is disturbing; if you can’t stand to watch animal cruelty, you can read the text on that page. We have seen fewer such investigations in recent years due to the proliferation of ag-gag laws. These laws, which make it illegal to video animal cruelty on factory farms, serve to make the second video more believable than the first. Moreover, according to animallaw.info, from an animal welfare perspective, there are no federal regulations regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens. Welfare issues at slaughter are of particular concern. I’ll cover them in a future post, but bear in mind that we’re talking about a lot of suffering because in 2013 we in the U.S. slaughtered 8,648,756,000 chickens with no federal protection. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act protects other animals, but not poultry. State animal protection laws tend to exclude farm animals, especially regarding the usual and customary practices of factory farmers.
Broiler chickens are housed in big buildings, typically confining 20,000 or more birds. You’d think that producers would clean out the all the poop between “flocks,” but they don’t. As the link explains, they may not even do that once a year. (The birds only live about 45 days.) Workers who come into the building may wear respirators to protect them from the irritating ammonia fumes produced by the decomposing manure, as is recommended. If unprotected for too long, workers can suffer respiratory problems, nausea, and headaches. Per unit of body weight, chickens’ air volume is triple that of humans, so the painful lung and nasal irritation the birds experience is even worse than what unprotected workers would suffer at the same concentration, and the chickens never leave the building until they’re on their way to slaughter. OSHA allows humans a short-term (15-minute) ammonia exposure limit of 35 parts per million. Chickens develop ocular abnormalities at a level of 25ppm, but it’s common for the birds to endure a level of 50ppm or more. The ammonia fumes cause irritation of the sinuses, trachea, and eyelids, in addition to the eyes. With continued exposure, ulceration of the cornea can lead to blindness. Unable to find food or water, blind birds die of starvation or dehydration.
If moisture isn’t well controlled, the ammonia concentrations will become higher closer to the ground (link to quote):
Anhydrous ammonia gas is lighter than air and will rise, so that generally it dissipates and does not settle in low-lying areas. However, in the presence of moisture (such as high relative humidity), the liquefied anhydrous ammonia gas forms vapors that are heavier than air. These vapors may spread along the ground or into low-lying areas with poor airflow where people [or chickens] may become exposed.
I inserted that quote for the benefit of any chemistry geeks who might think that ammonia would necessarily be less of a problem for the chickens than for the people who work in the buildings because the vapors normally rise. Moisture is a problem. It’s the major cause of footpad dermatitis, and according to this article the U.S. poultry industry racks up losses of about $250-300 million a year in lost sales of poultry paws (chicken paws are feet cut off at the ankle). The article notes the demand for them in China, with 928,000,000 pounds exported in 2009. These “ammonia burn” lesions account for about 99% of condemned paws.
Broilers are subjected to painful debeaking with a hot blade to keep them from pecking at the other birds in their overcrowded building. Perhaps you think that cutting through the beak with a hot blade is like clipping your fingernails. It isn’t. There’s sensitive soft tissue inside, and the procedure causes severe pain.
The sheds are packed so tightly that, by the time they’re fully grown, they have little space to stretch their wings. The rapid growth rate of broiler chickens creates severe welfare problems. The animals’ legs aren’t up to the task of supporting their profitably heavy bodies. Their bones just can’t grow fast enough to keep up with their muscles and fat. So they suffer painful deformities; 90% percent of broilers have gait abnormalities or leg problems . As they grow, they become less and less able to support their own weight. This is what a Humane Society International report says:
By six weeks old, chickens raised for meat have reached market weight. Unnaturally heavy and experiencing such stress on their hips and legs, they spend more than three-quarters of their time lying in their own waste. By the time they are slaughtered, all of their carcasses show evidence of gross fecal contamination. This is one reason why poultry products are such prime carriers of food-borne illness, especially since, unlike with cows and pigs, the skin can be eaten with the meat.
I found an undated report from a defunct website with this assessment:
On October 14, 1991, The Guardian quoted professor John Webster of the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science who stated, “Broilers are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20% of their lives. They don’t move around, not because they are overstocked, but because it hurts their joints so much.”
Like the legs, the heart and lungs are often inadequate to support the fast-growing birds, leading to an accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity called ascites, which results in heart failure, and is a common cause of death.
Learn more here or at www.upc-online.org. If you eat factory farmed broiler chickens and are not yet dissuaded from continuing to do so, please, please, please read this December 2013 report from the Humane Society of the United States. You don’t have to adopt my ethical point of view to not buy the flesh of factory farmed birds; you have only to live up to the ethical standards you held before you read this post: animals should have better lives. Don’t pay people raise animals in ways that you find unacceptable.