Fifty years ago, the average chicken raised for meat was slaughtered at approximately 82 days; the average slaughter age for fully grown chickens today is 40 days.
Over 70% of the 50 billion chickens raised for meat globally are raised in intensive industrial farming systems. This includes the majority of chickens in the UK, Europe, the US and China, as well as rapidly increasing numbers in developing countries.
A Change of Heart
Mike Weaver was in the broiler chicken industry for nearly two decades before deciding to switch to hemp farming. His decision was guided by Transformation, an initiative at Mercy For Animals to help farmers transition from live-stock to plant-based products…
In addition to saving animals, Weaver’s story exemplifies how small farmers are often exploited by larger corporations. According to Weaver, in the 18 years, he’d been a farmer, he’d never received a raise. Meanwhile, Pilgrim’s Pride, the poultry company he worked for, paid their stockholders $1.2 billion in dividends. Weaver wants to change the trajectory of rural farming. With his new hemp business, he believes he can use about half the amount of water, employ 5x the amount of people, and make much more money than he ever did with Pilgrim’s Pride. Weaver’s story shows how switching to plant-based farming is beneficial not only to animals and the environment but to the farmers themselves!
The modern, factory farmed chicken is selectively bred and genetically modified to produce bigger thighs and breasts. They are raised in enormous, windowless sheds. The birds become so heavy near killing time that their underdeveloped, brittle bones are unable to support their weight, making it difficult for them to stand.
A fully-grown chicken in a typical shed, or unit, will share each square metre of floor space with eighteen other birds. This translates to each individual chicken having the equivalent floor space of less than an A4 sheet of paper.
Broiler sheds are sterile places, with automatically-controlled lighting replacing natural light. The litter on the floor cannot be cleaned out until the chickens have been removed from the shed for slaughter. The droppings create an atmosphere dense with ammonia. This can damage the eyes of the birds, the respiratory systems, and can also cause painful hock burns on their legs, chests and feet.
The temperature can rise significantly in summer. If the ventilation system fails – which it can – thousands of birds can die of heat stress. The chickens spend much of their time lying down because their legs are not strong enough to support their heavy body weights. Many of them suffer from painful leg disorders. The unnaturally rapid growth puts a strain on their hearts and lungs. Although they are very young birds, they suffer from extreme fatigue. As the birds get older, they spend less time performing natural behaviours such as walking, pecking, scratching the litter and perching, and more time sitting and eating.
Birds with mobility problems are less able to compete for food and water and are likely to suffer injury, malnutrition and dehydration. Lame birds spend between 80% and 90% of their time lying down and can go without water for days. Broiler chickens frequently suffer from heart failure.
After about 40 days, chickens have reached the ‘target’ weight for slaughter. Catchers walk through the sheds at night grabbing birds, usually by one leg, and carrying them, in bunches of four or five, to where they cram them into crates which are then stacked onto a truck. Catchers are under pressure from their employers to get as many birds as possible caught and crated in as short a time as possible. Many of the birds already have fractures and dislocations and this process adds significantly to their pain. In some production facilities, the chickens are picked up using a catching machine. A catching machine can pick up around nine thousand chickens per hour
Once on the truck, the chickens, who have spent their entire lives in dimly-lit sheds, are exposed to completely new stress triggers: traffic noise, high temperatures, low temperatures, the movement of the truck etc. Some will die during transportation due to rough handling or due to heat stroke if the truck ventilation is poor and the temperatures outside are high. Other causes of death include heart failure, trauma and blood loss due to haemorrhaging into dislocated hip joints, itself a result of the rough catching process.
When the trucks arrive at the slaughterhouse, chickens are pulled from the crates and shackled upside down by their feet into metal stirrups on an overhead conveyor. The conveyor carries them into the killing room where their heads pass through an electrified water bath. This is how they are stunned. As they pass along further, an automatic knife cuts their throat. The next step in this journey is the scalding tank, which loosens their feathers before plucking. That’s the theory; the reality can be much different. Some birds lift their heads and miss the electrified water bath and are therefore fully conscious when they reach the automatic knife. Some birds avoid the knife and are lowered into the 50-degree scalding tank while still alive.
FREE RANGE and ORGANIC
Free-range chickens have access to fresh air and green spaces. Some of these spaces may contain tree and shrub cover. Each EU chicken must have one square metre of outdoor space, and have access for at least half of their life to an outdoor range. They can practice some natural behaviours (pecking, scratching, foraging, exercise outdoors). Because they grow slower and can exercise, free-range chickens do not suffer as much from brittle bone syndrome, and they are generally healthier animals. The birds grow more slowly than intensively reared chickens, and they live a little longer, usually up to about 8 weeks.
In commercial organic systems, chickens have outdoor access, and a space allowance outside of up to 4 square metres. Organic chickens grow at half the rate of chickens on intensive farms and they usually live for about 12 weeks.
Free Range usually means that the birds have access to the outdoors. If it’s a small operation, that’s probably fine, however if it’s a bigger, commercial operation, the access may be very limited, and the quality of the outdoor environment can be completely inadequate.
THE HISTORY OF THE CHICKEN
Although poultry were reared throughout ancient history by the Romans, Egyptians and Chinese, there was no poultry industry to speak of until after the First World War. Right up to the 1950’s, chicken was seen as a delicacy for special occasions such as Christmas or Easter. Poultry meat back then was from dual-purpose birds that produced both eggs and meat.
In the 1950s, a purpose-grown meat bird was introduced from the USA. These birds were called ‘broilers’; they produced young, tender meat which cooked much more quickly than its predecessor. They grew to table weight quickly and were not used in egg production. Around the same time de-rationing of poultry feed allowed flock sizes to increase. Electrification also allowed greater numbers of birds to be cared for in a controlled environment. In the 1950s, British people ate less than 1 kilo in a whole year. That has risen to an average of 25kg in a year. No comparable statistics exist for Ireland but common sense would suggest the figures are similar.
Currently, about 350 poultry farms produce 78 million broiler chickens in a single year. The cost of feed for chickens is comparatively high in Ireland. This means that cheap, imported chicken is very common. Many of the fast food outlets serve imported chicken meat.
FACTS YOU PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO KNOW
chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.
That’s 136,986,300 every day;
5,707,760 every hour;
95,130 every minute;
1,585 every second.
In the time it takes most people to say ‘fifty billion sentient chickens’, between 3,000 and 4,000 chickens will have been killed. This is industrial-scale killing and is, frankly, a mind-blowing statistic. Every single one of these 50 billion birds is an individual animal, with its own unique DNA, its own unique personality.