Welcome to the first post within a short series analyzing the practices and ethics of factory farming. This is a dense subject, so please bear with my attempt to sum up the extensive information and keep in mind that I am by no means an expert on the topic. It is my hope that the reader will keep an open heart and mind.
Domesticated chickens have been around for a very, very long time- dating back to 8000 BCE in China. Ancient civilizations called fowl ‘the bird that gives birth every day.’ Chickens began to be commodified when it was realized that they possess two very valuable goods: meat and eggs. Egg-laying chickens, or hens, are farmed for their eggs, while broiler chickens are farmed for their meat. Combined, more than 50 billion chickens are farmed each year, with the vast majority reared in factory farms (74% of poultry meat, 68% of eggs) (Poultry Farming, 2015).
Let’s first discuss the meat side of the chicken industry. ‘Broiler chickens,’ or just ‘broilers’ are raised specifically with the intention of being slaughtered for their meat. These chickens are actually a special hybrid of chicken which was bred for quick growth and development. This allows farms to have a faster chicken turnover rate, thereby increasing profit and decreasing prices for the consumer. According to Wikipedia, most commercial broilers reach their ‘slaughter weight’ after only five to seven weeks of age, though a chicken’s natural lifespan is six or more years (Poultry Farming, 2015).
Indoor broilers are raised in large, open structures that have heat, cooling, and food/water systems. This doesn’t sound too terrible thus far, right? The problem is, about 20,000 chickens are typically reared in these 500 by 50 (or sometimes 400 by 40) foot grow out houses. This leaves about eight-tenths of a square foot per bird. I also want to mention what they are given to eat- corn and soybean meal. For some of us, alarm bells go off in our heads when we hear corn and soy, since they are the two most genetically modified food products. [Note: While the safety of GM foods is not yet definitive, I still think it’s important to think about the connection between GM farm animal feed and the secondhand exposure humans receive by then consuming farm animals.]
There are additional problems that result from rearing so many chickens in such a small space. First, ammonia from their droppings produces highly polluted air within the structure. If there isn’t enough air flow, the eyes, respiratory systems, legs and feet of the chickens can be damaged or burned. Also, the overcrowding combined with their abnormally large breast muscles (remember, broiler chickens are bred for fast growth, causing their muscles to be much larger than a typical chicken of the same age) puts a strain on their hearts and lungs. In the U.K., up to 19 million broilers die in their sheds from heart failure each year (Poultry Farming, 2015).
It should be noted that there are “higher welfare indoor farms,” where the chickens have slightly more space and richer environments, and live up to two weeks longer than conventional indoor broilers do.
Meanwhile, egg-laying hens are being raised in similar space-deficient farms. Battery cages, which house anywhere from three to eight hens, are small metal or mesh cages with a floor of sloped mesh for feces or eggs to drop through. Food is provided via a trough, and water is dispensed through a nipple system. Cages are stacked back-to-back and arranged in rows, often housing a total of tens of thousands of hens. Similarly to broiler chickens, egg-laying hens are packed tightly so as to increase production. On average, hens receive about 67 square inches of cage space, which is smaller than a piece of letter sized paper (Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cage Eggs, 2015). With this amount of space, hens are unable to stretch their wings, perch, make a nest for their eggs, or even stand up. Discomfort aside, can you imagine how boring it would be to spend your whole life in a cage pressed up against five other hens?
In the wild, hens spend hours and sometimes days with her eggs, protecting them until they hatch. But within mass-production methods, she is not allowed to spent more than a few moments with her egg.
Most of us are aware of the free-range phenomenon which has caught wind in the past few years as more documentaries about animal welfare were released. More people grew concerned about the welfare of factory farmed animals (which is great). The result? Free-range! Cage-free! Let the chickens run around outdoors on a lush, green farm and live a life comparable to animals in the wild! Many consumers rested easier with the knowledge that they were no longer contributing to the cruel methods of factory farming chickens and eggs.
Sadly, free-range farms aren’t always the paradise we would ideally like our meat and eggs to come from. While it is true that free-range farms allow the animals to be outside for a period of the day, there is no minimum amount of time that they actually are outside (at least in the U.S.), and they are still confined to cages at night. [Note: In the U.K., free-range hens have constant access to the outdoors, and broilers must receive at least eight hours outdoors each day. Good job U.K.!] Another major issue with free-range farms is, again, overcrowding. At many farms, cannibalism and feather pecking are issues, which sometimes prompts farmers to resort to beak-trimming. However, there are a variety of different types of farms, some providing even greater levels of comfort. On the other hand, there are also eggs labeled ‘cage-free’ which means that the hens were not raised in battery cages, but they also stepped foot (or talon) outside.
It would seem that the terms ‘cage-free’ and ‘free-range’ are not exactly synonymous with ‘cruelty-free.’ However, it can be agreed upon that free-range and cage-free breeding is a step in the right direction.
I mentioned earlier that broiler chickens reach their slaughter weight at around five to seven weeks. The chickens are then transported to a slaughterhouse in crates, where they must wait without food in the hours before their death. Many chickens die in the midst of this process, due to stress or injuries acquired during transport. Actual slaughter method might be electrical stunning followed by an automatic knife slitting their throat. Sadly, “according to the USDA, millions miss the blade and drown in tanks of scalding water while conscious and able to feel pain” (Cruel Poultry Slaughter, 2010). In the gas methods, they are stunned with gas before conveyed to a killing machine. A variation of gas stunning slowly releases gases until the chickens become unconscious.
I know it’s difficult to read this information and imagine the trauma that factory farmed chickens go through, regardless of whether you are a meat-eater or not. Yet I firmly believe that we all have a compassionate side and the ability to be part of a change in our methods. I also recognize that for many of us, it can be easy to shrug off this information and file it away into a deep pocket of the mind- I believe this goes along with the fact that we are extraordinarily desensitized to violence. Still, I don’t think that’s a proper excuse to stand by and let the gruesomely unethical mass murders continue. We must make the farm to plate connection, and we must help those around us see it as well. As humans, it’s our duty to be a voice for those who can’t. At the very least, we can spread the word and help to decrease the demand for these products which will in turn save some innocent lives and restore a bit of lost love into the world.
‘Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cages.’ 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/cage-free_vs_battery-cage.html
‘Cruel Poultry Slaughter.’ 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/slaughter/facts/cak_slaughter.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
‘Poultry Farming.’ 2015. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poultry_farming