“The misery of egg-laying birds has been well-documented, but what about the life of chickens bred for eating?” Andrew Purvis, “Pecking Order,” The Guardian, Sept. 23, 2006.
Chickens are the largest number of land animals bred specifically for human consumption. Globally, more than 40 billion chickens are slaughtered each year for meat out of an estimated 65 billion animals killed annually for this purpose. Nine billion chickens die in the United States alone each year. Approximately 5 billion egg-laying hens are in battery cages throughout the world, many of them in production complexes holding a million or more birds.
Despite the disparity in numbers, battery-caged hens have received much more attention to their plight than chickens bred for meat have received. One reason, I believe, is that the suffering of egg-laying hens in battery cages is much more dramatically apparent to most people than the suffering of chickens in broiler sheds. Hens crammed together in battery cages allow an onlooker to distinguish a few hens out of thousands, and images of their suffering and frustration, their entanglement in wires and beating of their wings against cage bars, disturb even people who are unfamiliar with chickens. By contrast, chickens bred for meat are not raised in cages, although this could change by the end of the twenty-first century.
Chickens bred for meat are raised to six weeks old on floors in long low sheds the size of football fields, where they appear in their first week of life as thousands of indistinguishable yellow chicks, eating, drinking, and mixing with the sawdust and wood chips. In the weeks that follow, their weight multiplies many times over until, sitting heavily and inert in layers of excrement, lame and in pain, they appear to a person standing in the doorway of the stench-filled shed like lumps of dough stretching into the dark.
My own acquaintance with “broiler” chickens began in the mid-1980s when my husband and I rented a house on a piece of land that included a backyard chicken shed in Maryland. One day in June about a hundred young chickens appeared in the shed. A few weeks later the chickens were huge. I knew little about chickens at the time, but I was impressed by how crippled they were.
The chicken industry tells the public that thanks to research, better management, diet and other improvements, poultry diseases have been practically eliminated. However, industry publications and my own experience tell a totally different story. A big part of this story concerns what has been done to chickens genetically to create a heavy, fast-growing bird, falsely promoted to consumers as “healthy,” even though poultry is considered the most common cause of foodborne illness in consumer households.
Chickens bred for meat have been rendered ill and unfit as a result of genetic manipulation, unwholesome diets, drugs, antibiotics, and the toxic air and bedding in the sheds where they live in almost complete darkness. Their bodies are abnormal. As I wrote in my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, “When you pick up a chicken on the road who has fallen off a truck on the way to slaughter, the huge white bird with the little peeping voice and baby blue eyes feels like liquid cement.”
Even if you rescue a chicken from a poultry shed at one day old, the pathologies built into the bird will emerge in the form of cardiovascular disease, crippled joints, and an unnatural gait. The breast muscle grows large and pendulous, and excess fat squeezes the internal organs, impairing the bird’s ability to breathe. Respiratory distress is innate in these birds. In the 1970s, a chicken farmer wrote, ironically, about the new type of chicken then being bred, that “the sign of a good meat flock is the number of birds dying from heart attacks.” This remains true today.
The chicken industry tells the public that the “physical welfare” of chickens is very important to the industry, and that economic profitability cannot be achieved without careful attention to welfare. But that is not how the system actually works. Chickens bred for meat do not balloon out of all proportion in their infancy because they are content and well-cared for, but because they are artificially manipulated through genetics and management techniques to produce this outcome. In addition, they are slaughtered as babies, before diseases and death have decimated the flocks as they would otherwise do, even with all the drugs.
The question has been asked whether the suffering of industrially-raised chickens could be scientifically eliminated. What if scientists could create chickens and other farmed animals whose “adjustment” to pathogenicity consisted in their inability to experience their own existence? In the early 1990s, an engineer predicted that the future of chicken and egg production would come to resemble “industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines that brain-dead human beings need a court order to get unplugged from” (Robert Burruss, “The Future of Eggs,” The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 29, 1993). As long as they don’t “feel” anything, is it ethical to do this to chickens?
Agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson has argued that if blind chickens “don’t mind” being crowded together in confinement as much as do chickens who can see, it would “improve animal welfare” to breed blind chickens (Paul Thompson. “Welfare as an Ethical Issue: Are Blind Chickens the Answer?” in Bioethics Symposium, USDA, Jan. 23, 2007). A breeder of featherless chickens in Israel claims “welfare” benefits for naked chickens on factory farms, despite the fact that feathers help to protect the birds’ delicate skin from injuries and infections, which is all the more necessary in an environment that is as thick with aerial pollution and ammoniated, fecal-soaked floors as industrial chicken sheds are. Philosopher Peter Singer, asked if he would consider it ethical to engineer a “brainless bird,” grown strictly for meat, said he would consider it “an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling” (Oliver Broudy, “The Practical Ethicist,” Salon, May 8, 2006.)
But would it eliminate the suffering these birds are enduring? What if the chicken’s brain could be scientifically expunged? What if the elements of memory, instinct, sensation and emotion could be eliminated and a brainless chicken constructed? In the United Kingdom, an architecture student named Andre Ford has proposed what he calls the “Headless Chicken Solution” to the suffering of chickens on factory farms. (Olivia Solon, “Food project proposes Matrix-style vertical chicken farms.” Wired, Feb. 15, 2012)
Drawing on Paul Thompson’s “Blind Chicken Solution,” Ford envisions the removal of the chicken’s cerebral cortex. Removing the cerebral cortex, he says, would inhibit the bird’s sensory perceptions so that chickens could be mass-produced without awareness of themselves or their situation in a technologized universe that would make it easier for the chicken industry to make even more money facilitating ever greater consumption of chicken products by a growing global human population.
Ford equates removing the chicken’s brain with the “removal of suffering,” but the suffering of chickens on factory farms is a matter of more complexity than science fiction and conventional “welfare” solutions can address. Chicken brain removal, far from removing suffering, takes suffering – the condition of injury or trauma whether consciously felt or not– to the ultimate limit of destroying the integrity of the bird as such. It accords with the agribusiness view of farmed animals as mere biological raw material to be manipulated at will.
Already, according to a poultry industry manual, “The technology built into buildings and equipment [is] embodied genetically into the chicken itself” (Bell and Weaver, Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production, 5th edition, 2002). Taking this “embodiment” to the ultimate extreme of total avian degradation is not the answer. If there is going to be humanely-produced chicken in the future, the burgeoning technology of “beyond meat,” which replicates the texture and taste of chicken flesh using all-plant ingredients, will end the animal suffering, save the birds, be kinder to the planet and better for us. It will truly be something to crow about. (Brad Stone, “Venture Capital Sees Promise in Lab-Created Eco-Foods,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Jan. 24, 2013.)