Fifty years ago chickens were chickens. Then humans in the shape of “poultry scientists” decided to divide the species into two distinct types – those destined to lay an optimum number of eggs (they’re usually in battery cages, eventually to be turned into soups, stock cubes, etc, once past their egg production peak) and meat-type birds (broilers). Articles decrying the disgusting state of battery hens are fairly commonplace; mush less is known about the meaty broilers, and it’s these we’re concerned with here.
Broilers aren’t caged – they’re kept in huge, windowless sheds, standing or crouching on a litter that’s fluffy and clean on day one but eventually becomes a filthy breeding ground for all manner of dangerous bacteria. A single flock can number 50,000 birds, or more. At first there’s plenty of room, but towards the end of it’s short life each bird has less than half a page of this magazine of floor space to itself. Lighting is dim, ventilation often poor, and the ground on which they stand eventually comprises of 80 per cent faeces. And not only faeces – many birds die from disease and heat-stress, some to decompose in the litter, often half-eaten by their living shed mates. Some birds are so crippled they cannot drag themselves to feed and water points –these may simply die from starvation or dehydration. The appalling stench that wafts from broiler sheds is partly explained by the rotting carcasses of dying birds missed by the stockperson. He or she should remove all “deads” daily, but inevitably, some go unnoticed in the gloom and congestion. Over last year, pre-slaughter mortality as high as 50 per cent has been reported in the UK alone. Imagine! That’s 25,000 birds dying within a few weeks, in a single shed.
It seems that the chicken’s immune system is breaking down, a natural reaction to the stress and suffering, to the massive vaccination programmes and the reckless overuse of antibiotics. It is finally proving too much for nature to handle, and the chickens are giving up the struggle.
How many people know that most broilers are slaughtered when only six or seven weeks old? Chickens can live for as many YEARS, and until poultry scientists came on the scene a chicken of six weeks could still shelter under it’s mother’s wing. Now chicks of this age are giants, twice their “normal” weight, meeting their death (some 650 million of them annually, in the UK alone) when their eyes are still baby-blue and they cheep like the little birds they truly are.
Genetic selection accounts for this disastrous change in chickens. It sounds highly scientific, doesn’t it, yet really it is a very crude affair indeed: a case of allowing only the fatties – the ones that want to eat and eat – the chance to breed. And the broiler-shed lights are left on for 23 and a half hours out of every 24, to maximise this time spent eating and putting on weight. That missing half hour? It’s simply to accustom the birds to darkness, so guarding against panic and mass suffocation in the event of a power cut.
This unnatural “selection”, to promote rapid growth and extra flesh for the dinner plate, means that the legs of a broiler often cannot support the body weight, a great many suffering leg and feet abnormalities as a consequence. The antibiotics added to the chicken feed contribute another five to ten per cent to their final weight. Sadly, the modern chicken is a genetic freak, designed to suffer.
The widespread use of therapeutic antibiotics (ie, those used in veterinary and human medicine, as opposed to the growth promoters) on factory farms is a highly dangerous, risky business, incidentally. Already, life-saving drugs used in human medicine are proving ineffective. Physicians worldwide are expressing grave concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in veterinary medicine – dangerous bacteria are getting clever and developing antibiotic resistance. How shall we feel if, in the not-too-distant future, we and our children are threatened by diseases that no longer respond to treatment with modern “wonder drugs”? The sheer irresponsibility of giving drugs to animals merely so that they can survive the man-made conditions of factory farms is staggering!
Even those “lucky” chickens that make it to the slaughterhouse may bear the scars of their miserable six or seven week existence. Hock burns and ulcerated feet (the result of crouching down on filthy litter) can affect some or all of the flock. Few people ever see, or wish to know about, the feet that belonged to the “healthy” chicken they’re eating. Hock burns sometimes find their way onto the supermarket shelf, though many are scraped off at the processing stage to hide the evidence of these bacteria-infested scabs. Marek’s disease (a form of cancer) may also be latent in a chicken that passes fit for human consumption, because it’s not easy to detect in very young birds, and poultry meat inspection these days is a fast and furious affair.
Today’s broiler chicken is not INTENDED to survive for more than a few weeks, having then achieved it’s most profitable (isn’t “profit” a wonderful word?) burst of growth. And herein lies a problem. All chicks must have parents (the breeding stock) and if these are as obese as their offspring they simply wouldn’t be able to breed. Reproductive disorders and diseased organs (especially hearts, livers, and kidneys) would decimate the breeders, while the cockerels would be too obese to mount the females. The industry’s solution? Simple! They half-starve the parents, so that they can keep on their feet in sufficient numbers to be able to produce these profitable chicks. In the UK, up to 50 per cent of the birds’ rations may be withheld to ensure “nimble” breeders, while in the USA “skip-a-day” feeding is routine and the absence of food for four of five days not unknown. In the words of an American poultry scientist, addressing the audience at a recent symposium, “You can hear the ‘tap-tapping’ as soon as you enter the unit.” This tap-tapping is being made by the birds’ beaks as they desperately investigate every available surface in the shed, searching for food.
And the slaughter of poultry is a nightmare. Electric stunners often final to work properly, birds receive agonising pre-stun shocks, necks of conscious birds are cut, a proportion of birds enter the scalding tank alive – these are just some of the grotesque day-to-day happenings.
Demi-veggies and out-and-out carnivores – please believe that blood did once flow through your “clean” white chicken meat, and consider the suffering of the broiler that is being “manufactured” just so that you can eat it. Chicken tends to be termed a “health food” or a “convenience food”. I call it a junk food, cheap in over-the-counter cost but with a terrible hidden price on every bird.