Chickens are inquisitive, intelligent animals who, according to animal behaviorist Dr. Chris Evans of Australia’s Macquarie University, “are good at solving problems.” Evans explains that chickens are able to understand that recently hidden objects still exist, a concept that small children are unable to master. Discussing chickens’ capabilities, he says, “As a trick at conferences, I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”(1)
In nature, chickens form friendships and social hierarchies, recognize one another and develop a pecking order, love and care for their young, and enjoy dust-bathing, making nests, and roosting in trees. Chickens raised for meat and eggs are unable to engage in any of these activities.
Chickens Raised for Meat
More than 9 billion chickens are raised and killed for meat each year in the United States.(2) The industry refers to these chickens as “broilers” and raises them in huge, ammonia-filled, windowless sheds, where artificial lighting is manipulated to make birds eat as often as possible.(3)
To keep up with demand and reduce production costs, genetic selection and a steady dose of growth-promoting drugs are used to ensure large, fast-growing birds. Today, most chicks take only six to seven weeks to reach “processing” weight, and chickens raised for meat weigh an average of one-fifth more than those raised in the 1950s.(4) The shift in consumer habits—from eating whole chickens to chicken parts—has encouraged the industry to raise birds with “thicker breast[s], fatter wings and chubbier drumsticks,” according to the Associated Press.(5) Skeletal problems are common among these birds, and many die from ascites, a disease that causes heart failure when, according to one physiologist, the birds’ “hearts and lungs have to work harder to keep up with the rapid rate of growth, and they just can’t do it.”(6,7)
Chickens Raised for Their Eggs
More than 285 million hens are raised for eggs in the U.S., and nearly all of them spend their lives in battery cages, stacked tier upon tier in huge warehouses.(8 )Confined seven or eight to a cage, these birds don’t have enough room to turn around or even spread one wing. Each year, millions of day-old male chicks are killed—usually in high-speed grinders called “macerators,” which shred them alive—because they are worthless to the egg industry.(9,10)
To prevent stress-induced behaviors caused by extreme crowding, such as pecking cagemates to death, hens are kept in semi-darkness, and the ends of their sensitive beaks are cut off with a hot blade—no painkillers are administered during this painful process.(11) The wire mesh of the cages rubs against their skin, making it raw, and causes their feet to become crippled. Farmers induce greater egg production through “forced molting”—shocking hens’ bodies into another egg-laying cycle by starving them for days and keeping them in the dark, a stressful situation that causes them to lose feathers and weight.(12)
Broken bones are also common among these birds, who “suffer significant osteoporosis,” according to the International Veterinary Information Service.(13) A study published in Poultry Science explained that “high production hens’ structural bone is mobilized throughout the laying period in order to contribute to the formation of eggshell.”(14)
Although chickens can live for more than a decade, hens raised for their eggs are exhausted, and their egg production begins to wane when they are about 2 years old.(15,16) When this happens, they are slaughtered. More than 100 million “spent” hens are killed in slaughterhouses each year.(17)
The lives of chickens raised for meat and eggs end with a grueling trip to the slaughterhouse. Before the terrifying journey, chickens are caught by workers and placed in crates. One reporter at a Delmarva chicken farm described the “catching” process as “a half-dozen men … grabbing [chickens] by their feet, shoving them into the drawers of 6-foot high crates. The men can catch more than 6,000 birds in an hour.”(18) One industry study of catching practices concluded that “[t]he number of freshly broken bones found in live birds prior to slaughter and the number of old healed breaks found at slaughter are unacceptably high.”(19)
After they reach the slaughterhouse, the birds are dumped out of their crates and hung upside-down in shackles, further injuring their legs, which are already tender and often broken. Their throats are slit by machines, and they are immersed in scalding-hot water for feather removal. They are often conscious throughout the entire process. Often, because their bones are so brittle from egg production that the electric current would cause them to shatter, hens are not even stunned before their throats are slit.(20)
You can read poultry-worker whistleblower statements about catching and slaughter at GoVeg.com.
Antibiotics Lead to Drug-Resistant Bacteria, Human Illnesses
Factory farms simply cannot raise billions of animals per year without using drugs that allow the animals to survive cramped and unhealthy conditions that would otherwise kill them. Millions of pounds of antibiotics are fed to chickens, who metabolize only about 20 percent of the drugs fed to them: The remaining 80 percent end up in their feces.(21) The 3 trillion pounds of waste produced by factory-farmed animals each year are usually used to fertilize crops and subsequently end up leaching into waterways—along with the drugs and bacteria that they contain.(22)
Environmental and human health problems are developing as a result of this unchecked use of antibiotics. A U.S. geological study found 14 antibiotics used in animal agriculture and human medicine in almost 50 percent of the waterways tested.(23)
One scientist examined poultry workers’ health and found that more than 40 percent of the test subjects were infected with campylobacter and that the bacteria were “supersized” and resistant to antibiotics. She remarked, “There have been a lot of stupid things we’ve done as a species … but this (giving animals antibiotics) has to be one of the most stupid.”(24) A Consumer Reports study of 525 supermarket chickens found campylobacter in 81 percent of them and salmonella in 15 percent; up to 84 percent of the bacteria were resistant to antibiotics.(25)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million instances of foodborne illness and more than 5,000 food-related deaths annually in the U.S.(26) Eggs with salmonella pose a threat to one out of every 50 people each year.(27)
In addition to their toxic effects on the human body, meat, eggs, and dairy products contain large amounts of harmful substances such as cholesterol, saturated fats, and concentrated protein. For example, one large egg contains more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol, and chicken flesh contains the same amount of cholesterol as beef.(28,29,30)
What You Can Do
The best thing that you can do for chickens is to stop eating them! Eat tofu scramble instead of scrambled eggs, try egg replacer in your baked goods, and marinate tofu at your next barbecue. Call 1-888-VEG-FOOD or visit GoVeg.com to order a free vegetarian starter kit.
You can also spread the word to your friends about the health, environmental, and animal welfare problems caused by raising chickens for food. Support legislation that abolishes battery cages, and encourage the poultry industry to use controlled-atmosphere killing to kill chickens instead of the current cruel methods.
1) William Grimes, “If Chickens Are So Smart, Why Aren’t They Eating Us?” The New York Times 12 Jan. 2003.
2) Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., “Chicken Meat, Slaughtered (Head),” FAOSTAT Database, 2006.
3) Victor G. Stanley et. al., “Relationship Between Age of Commercial Broiler Chickens and Response to Photostimulation,” Poultry Science 76 (1997): 306-10.
4) Cindy Skrzycki, “Old Rules on Poultry Categories May Fly the Coop,” The Washington Post 7 Oct. 2003.
5) “As Demand Grows, So Do Chickens,” Associated Press, 2002.
6) Mench and Siegel.
7) Tara Weaver-Missick, “Getting to the Heart of Chicken Ailments,” Agricultural Research May 2000.
8) United Egg Producers, “Egg Industry Fact Sheet,” US Egg Industry Sep. 2006.
9) Joy A. Mench and Paul B. Siegel, “Poultry,” South Dakota State University, College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, 11 Jul. 2001.
10) John Summers, “Sexing Chicks as 7-Day-Old Embryos,” Poultry Industry Council Factsheet #90, 1996.
11) Mench and Siegel.
12) Mench and Siegel.
13) M. Gentle, “Comparative Vertebrate Nociception and Pain,” Roslin Institute, Scotland, 3 Dec. 2002.
14) T.G. Knowles and L.J. Wilkins, “The Problem of Broken Bones During the Handling of Laying Hens—A Review,” Poultry Science 77 (1998): 1798-1802.
15) Molly Snyder Edler, “Chicken Love Leads to Book Deal,” OnMilwaukee.com, 26 Sep. 2002.
16) Tuan A. Meunier et al., “Commercial Egg Production and Processing,” Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Perdue University, 4 Apr. 2003.
17) Barbara Olejnik, “Dwindling Spent Hen Disposal Outlets Causes Concern,” Poultry Times 15 Sept. 2003.
18) Amy Ellis Nutt, “In Soil, Water, Food, Air,” Star-Ledger 8 Dec. 2003.
19) Knowles and Wilkins.
20) Mench and Siegel.
25) “Dirty Birds. Even ‘Premium’ Chickens Harbor Dangerous Bacteria,” Consumer Reports Jan. 2007.
26) Paul S. Mead et al., “Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 15 Sep. 1999.
27) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Salmonella Enteritidis,” Disease Information 13 Oct. 2005.
28) USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, “Egg, Whole, Raw, Fresh,” Aug. 2006.
29) USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, “Chicken, Broilers or Fryers, Meat and Skin, Raw,” Aug. 2006.
30) USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, “Beef, Carcass, Separable Lean and Fat, Select, Raw,” Aug. 2006.