Chickens - Broilers
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The human treatment of chickens is a staggering moral depravity flying in the face of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and a relative microcosm of inhumanity to animals.
People bred the domesticated chicken from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) of south-east Asia (above graphic). Chickens are now one of the most numerous birds on Earth and one of the most popular, cheapest and widespread human meats.
Junglefowl live in forests in small flocks of up to 30 birds and tend to stay within a range of about 0.5 to 5 ha (about 1 to 12 acres).
Just a few business companies produce most broilers.
Flocks are variously composed of males and females, all males, or a cock and some hens. They tend not to fly far, often only up to a perch, over obstacles and to avoid danger. They recognise each other and like to be near birds they know. (For more see Chickens - Egg-laying Hens, below.)
Most chickens before the 1940's scratched about outdoors in small free-ranging flocks and people ate them only on special occasions. Then the new invention of refrigeration emerged as a factor that changed poultry farming, especially in the US. Refrigeration prompted the mass raising of chickens. Highly intensive industrial-scale farming (factory farming) developed as the most efficient means of producing maximum output of chickens for minimum cost.
The modern chicken-producing industry developed two types of chicken: the broiler for fast meat production and the egg-layer. About 50 poultry companies manage almost all broiler production today in the US. Egg production similarly transformed itself into a highly specialised industry.
Male and female broiler chicks hatch in massive automatically run hatcheries. They are then transfered to huge, windowless, broiler sheds. Litter,such as wood shavings or cut up straw, cover the shed floors. Feeding, watering, lighting, temperature control and ventilation are automatic.
The broiler industry has a three-fold method of mass-producing chickens cheaply for the supermarkets. The industry crowds chicks into the broiler sheds; each might contain 100,000 chicks. At first chicks have room to move about, but when grown they stand in a solid mass with no free space. The industry makes chickens grow big. The average live weight per broiler in the US nearly doubled in 50 years (1945 to 2001) from 1.3 kg (3 lbs) to 2.3 kg (5 lbs) per chicken. And the industry makes chickens grow fast. From a day old chick to a 2kg broiler takes six weeks. In former times broilers took twice as long to reach market weight. Chickens can live several years in naturally.
"They cannot roost at night, dust-bathe to clean themselves, feel sunlight, breathe fresh air, build a nest, raise their young, or even freely stretch their wings, let alone exercise or roam."
Miyun Park (2006:176): In Defence of Animals - the second wave. Peter Singer (ed).
Providing welfare is impossible with so many birds, so poultry workers kill sick chickens if they find them. But the dead and the dying birds easily go unnoticed and the living birds tread decomposing birds into the litter. No one cleans out the shed, so the litter made increasingly foul by accumulating faeces and decomposing bodies. The end use of broiler shed litter is fertiliser scattered on farmland or compressed into pellets and sold as garden fertiliser.
Workers clear out the sheds for the next batch of chicks when broilers reach six to seven weeks of age. They may accomplish around six batches of broilers per year.
The housing conditions of broilers' trouble them with many disorders and diseases. Among the health problems are that hearts and lungs suffer, unable to keep pace with rapid body growth and leg bones growing more slowly cannot support their heavy body weight. Weakened they cannot reach food and water and die of starvation and thirst. Millions of broilers die every year before they reach their allotment of six weeks of age. Broilers in these conditions also pose a threat to human health. For example, bacteria that cause food poisoning in humans, such as Salmonella, are common in broiler chickens.
Transport & Slaughter
Farm workers grab birds by a leg and holding several per hand cram them into cages. They load cages by the thousand onto lorries. For the chickens, broken bones, dislocations, bruises, pain and distress are common. They must endure considerable distances, exposure to extremes of heat, cold, thirst and suffocation. Many birds do not survive the journey.
Broilers on their way to slaughter. Photo: Farm Sanctuary.
At slaughterhouses workers spend all their time hanging chickens upside down on a moving chain (see photo below) that carries them to automated slaughter and packing. Hanging upside down is extra painful for birds with injuries from their housing or transport.
The chickens' heads pass into a tank of water that electrically stuns them. The moving chain carries them in turn to an automatic neck-slashing blade, a tank with scalding hot water to loosen feathers and a plucking machine to remove feathers. Some birds may squirm in pain, raise their heads, miss stunning and go consciousness to neck-cutting. Or they may recover consciousness during the bleeding to death.
Finally an automatic machine cuts off the chickens' heads and more machines slice their bodies open and remove their innards. Bodies go to refrigeration units for the supermarkets. Heads, organs and feathers are disposed of or turned into meal to feed other animals.
The job of breeding the vast numbers of broilers falls to the breeding birds: annually, six million breeding chickens in Britain and 60 million breeders in the United States. The system does not allow breeding hens to mother chicks. They simply lay the eggs which hatch in the incubators.
The systems selectively breeds the breeders to pass on a rapid growth rate to their offspring. The breeders have this rapid growth rate themselves so need a lot of food to keep going. However, if breeders ate as they would like they would die from over eating. So they live on an inadequate diet in a constant state of starvation.
Breeders are usually housed poor in conditions like their offspring and suffer similar diseases and injuries. Their egg production declines after one year and the go for slaughter and turned into low quality meat products such as pies and soups.
The scale of chicken killing is staggering. Yet there are virtually no laws in any country specifically for chickens. The Farm Animal Welfare Council in Britain
What other sentient species suffers billions slaughtered every year?
recommended simple basic care for farm animals in their Five Freedoms (freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, from discomfort due to environment, from pain, injury and disease, from fear and distress, and freedom to express normal behaviour).
Some countries strive to adopt such welfare measures. But chicken industries worldwide allow chickens only the most basic necessities to survive long enough to claim their meat and eggs. Chicken industries accord chickens no rights worthy of the name.
The factory farming of chickens is the archetype of human moral depravity to animals. Industrialised chicken farms are concentration and killing camps specially designed for chickens (not to mention turkeys). Chicken death camps satisfy the feeding of humanity's burgeoning population and few people are aware or care how chickens are treated.
Some moral questions to consider are:
- Is it right that people ignore chicken welfare for the sake of profit, economics and food production?
- Is it right that broilers are bred for heavy bodies and quick growth? (This is one step away from genetically engineering headless lumps of living meat.)
- Would free-range systems satisfy human demand for chickens and would they be any more humane and moral?
- Do we have a moral duty to educate people about the conditions of chickens?
Also see the entry Factory Farming.
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