BROILER (MEAT) CHICKENS
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
the average chicken raised for meat slaughtered
1950's approx. 82 days
2022 it's 38 – 40 days
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 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 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 they get
older, they spend less time performing natural behaviours such as walking, pecking,
scratching the litter and perching, and more time sitting and eating. In summer, the
temperature can rise significantly; if the ventilation system fails – which it sometimes
does – thousands of birds can die of heat stress.
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% - 90% of their time lying down and can go without water for days.
Broiler chickens frequently suffer from heart failure.
At 38 – 40 days, chickens reach the ‘optimal’ 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 of the larger 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 bemuch 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.
Currently, about 350 poultry farms produce about 100 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.