Chicken is by far the most popular meat in the United States. In 2010, chicken overtook beef as the country’s most-consumed meat. The chicken industry predicts that this appetite will only grow. America is on track to consume 91.5 pounds of chicken per capita this year, an increase from 90 pounds in 2015. By 2017, Americans will be eating 93 pounds of chicken per capita—more than double the amount we ate 40 years ago.
However, there are major problems with America’s favorite meat. About 99 percent of chickens raised for meat in the United States are raised in factory farms. Slaughtering the 9 billion broiler chickens America ate last year is a labor- and resource-intensive process that takes a massive toll not just on the environment, but on the workers who raise and process these animals for you to eat.
But before going into that, let’s look at the short and brutal life of a factory-farmed chicken.
Sickening animal abuse
“Chickens are arguably the most abused animals on the planet,” Sarah Von Alt, a communications specialist at Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit animal advocacy group, told AlterNet.
Whereas the life expectancy of a backyard chicken can be between 10 to 15 years, a broiler chicken lives for about 40 days. Chickens are social, intelligent creatures, capable of forming emotional bonds, but today’s broiler chickens are purposely bred into meat-producing machines.
Von Alt described how a broiler chicken’s unnaturally rapid growth rates causes incredible suffering as they are crippled and rendered immobile from their own weight. This leaves them in constant pain and many die of organ failure. Antibiotics are used to keep them growing in filthy and stressful conditions that would otherwise kill them very quickly.
In May, Mercy for Animals released undercover footage of shocking animal abuse and dismal conditions at several chicken farms contracted by Tyson Foods—the country’s largest producer of broiler chickens and supplier of McDonald’s, KFC, Chick-fil-A and more. The video shows thousands of these birds crammed into windowless rooms, with many appearing to suffer from devastating deformations. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, at one farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, a supplier of McDonald’s chicken nuggets, workers were caught on hidden camera beating chickens with spiked clubs.
It’s not the first time Tyson’s chicken farmers were charged with animal cruelty. Just this past August, Compassion Over Killing, a Washington, D.C.-based animal welfare group that exposes cruelty to farm animals, released footage of a Tyson-contracted chicken breeding farm in Virginia that subjected young male breeder chickens to a cruel practice called “boning" in which a dull plastic rod or bone is stabbed through their nostrils to reduce their food intake.
Change is happening, but not nearly enough
That’s not to say Big Chicken hasn’t made some changes for the better. Following the release of the Mercy for Animals video, both Tyson and McDonald's cut tieswith the Tennessee facility. The owners of the farm also pled guilty to one count each of animal cruelty. And after the Compassion Over Killing video’s release, Tyson fired 10 workers in Virginia for chicken abuse and said it would end the cruel practice of boning companywide.
Tyson’s biggest competitor, Purdue, also announced a comprehensive animal welfare policy that will reduce the suffering of nearly 680 million birds on 2,200 farms each year, according to Von Alt.
Still, industrial-scale chicken production hasn’t entirely cleaned up its act.
“This isn’t a matter of a few bad apples failing to meet industry standards; this is a matter of industry standards allowing for blatant animal abuse,” Von Alt said.
Chickens are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act or the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. In fact, Von Alt pointed out that most states specifically exclude chickens from anti-cruelty laws under what are called “common farming exemptions.”
“This means chicken factory farmers routinely get away with torturing billions of chickens in ways that would be illegal if dogs, cats, or even cows or pigs were the victims instead,” she said.
Additionally, a number of states have proposed or enacted "ag-gag" laws that make it illegal for undercover investigators to expose animal abuse, environmental offenses and unsafe working conditions, thus keeping consumers in the dark about what happens behind the walls of factory farms.
Yet nearly 70 percent of U.S. consumers want food companies to be more transparent about how they manufacture their products, according to a 2015 survey from market-research company Mintel.
The cost of cheap chicken
Most chicken you see in the market today comes from “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), industrial-scale production facilities that raise more than 600,000 birds a year, according to a 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report.
“Producers know that chickens are very inexpensive. That’s why they have to have vast numbers of them on a particular factory farm to make it a profitable operation,” Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, told AlterNet.
“And when animals have a very low economic value they are often abused in horrific ways,” he said. “To put it another way, when an animal is cheap as dirt, she often gets treated like dirt.”
Shapiro said that billions in taxpayer dollars are indirectly funding the poultry industry in the form of agricultural subsidies, reducing the cost of corn and soy needed to feed the billion of birds.
In a column for the Huffington Post, Shapiro cited a Tufts University study estimating that the chicken industry alone saved $1.25 billion in feed costs from 1997 to 2005 just from taxpayer-funded subsidies.
Indeed, thanks to dipping feed prices, the chicken industry predicts profits in the coming year.
When farmed chickens are ready for slaughter, they get packed into crates, piled into trucks then head over to a poultry processing plant. You can watch this video from U.S. Poultry if you’re curious about the step-by-step process:
Behind the glossy images, however, are the employees who toil at these giant poultry processing plants.
America’s demand for chicken has only increased the pressures faced by slaughterhouse workers, Oxfam America detailed in its extensive report, Lives on the Line. Workers process around 35 to 45 birds per minute, or one chicken every two seconds.
The work is rapid, repetitive, low-paying, and unsurprisingly, workplace injuries are common. Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, Foster Farms, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms “all have records full of chronic safety hazards,” Elizabeth Grossman reports for Civil Eats.
Eric Harbin, OSHA Dallas Region deputy regional administrator, told Civil Eats that poultry processors suffer twice the amount of serious work-related injuries and illnesses compared to other private industry workers, and these injuries are often “gruesome.”
Just last month, Tyson was fined $263,498 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 15 “serious” and two “repeated” workplace safety violations at a Center, Texas chicken plant. One employee had a finger amputated after trying to remove jammed chicken parts from an unguarded conveyor belt, Food Safety News reported.
“These are some of the largest fines given in one inspection to a poultry company,” Deborah Berkowitz, National Employment Law Project senior fellow and former OSHA chief of staff explained to Civil Eats of Tyson’s recent OHSA fine.
In the summer of 2015, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit, sent an undercover investigator to a Tyson slaughter plant in Carthage, Texas. As an ALDF letter described, the investigator was instructed to hang live chickens by their feet onto fast moving shackles at a rate of more than 25 chickens per minute.
“The birds would often defecate out of fear, and feces would then get on her skin and clothes and in her eyes,” the letter stated. The “inadequate” eyewear provided to her by Tyson “failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides.” A few weeks later, the investigator “developed an infection, and pus discharged from her eyes.”
With billions and billions of chickens consumed each year, there’s no doubt that the chicken industry is a major source of environmental damage. Broiler litter, or chicken feces, is a colossal and ongoing source of pollution in our nation’s waterways.
“Growers typically dispose of litter by spreading it on open fields or cropland, but when it is over-applied or poorly managed, rain washes it into streams and rivers, causing significant water-quality problems,” the Pew Charitable Trusts stated.
In the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, about 230,000 tons of excess manure from Purdue’s chickens seeps into the bay each year from the adjacent Delmarva Peninsula. This results in high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that can trigger dangerous algae blooms and choke off oxygen in water that can harm or kill aquatic life.
Raising chickens for food also requires a huge amount of resources. It takes 2.5 pounds of grain and 518 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken meat. Also, as Nina Rastogi wrote in a 2009 Slate article, “The poultry-broiler industry consumed some 240 billion megajoules of energy in 2005, or the equivalent of 42 million barrels of crude oil. That's more than the entire country of Sri Lanka consumed the same year—all to keep us well-stocked with wings and drumsticks.”
Environmentalists also have a major bone to pick with the meat industry’s role in global deforestation, due to sheer amount of grain that’s necessary for animal feed.
“In South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone. Although this is lower than in the 1990s, it is still far too high and can largely be blamed on heavily soy-dependent livestock farming,” the World Wildlife Fund said.
Additionally, in 2014, Tyson acquired Hillshire Brands, the company behind Sara Lee packaged pies. Rainforest Action Network responsible food campaigner Ashley Schaeffer Yildiz told AlterNet that Hillshire is considered a “laggard company” and the “worst of the worst” when it comes to conflict palm oil.
Unsustainable palm oil production has led to widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, pushed many critically endangered wildlife species of wildlife such as orangutans, rhinoceros, elephants and more to brink of extinction, cleared forests and pushed people off their native lands. The mass felling and burning of trees and vegetation release methane and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
“Tyson has had a terrible impact on the planet and the basic rights of people and animals through its horrendous factory farms,” Yildiz said. “Its problem has also gone global with conflict palm oil with its acquisition of Hillshire Farms.”
Tyson says that it only sources palm oil from supply partners that are members of Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, but RAN contends that such certification schemes amount to nothing more than “greenwashing.”
What can you do?
Last year, Tyson Foods slaughtered 33.41 million chickens on a weekly basis. The meat giant achieved record earnings and sales in 2015, with $40.6 billion in sales. As one of the most powerful food companies in the world in poultry and other meat and food products, Tyson has the power to make positive changes for our food system. But until they take more of these steps, concerned consumers can vote with their dollars.
“We all agree that factory farming isn’t going away anytime soon, and the industrial agricultural model isn’t going away anytime soon,” Yildiz said. “So in the meantime, we need to tarnish their brand and show consumers what’s really in their chicken and what’s really in Sara Lee apple pies.”
More and more Americans are waking up to the horrors of the factory farming industry. Celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Moby, Russell Simmons, and Pamela Anderson have used their fame to speak up for animals.
“But you don’t have to be famous to be a hero for animals,” said Mercy For Animals’ Von Alt. “In the age of social media, caring people from all walks of life are able to reach thousands, sometimes millions, of people with a message of compassion and mercy for animals.”
My friend Susan Webb, a vegan who hasn’t had a bite of chicken for six years, recently shared Compassion Over Killing’s video on Facebook. “Don't support this by choosing to look away and not see the cruelty your chicken went through before it got to your plate,” she wrote alongside the post. “There are so many incredibly good meat substitutes these days.”
If you can’t quite give up that buffalo wing, humanely raised chickens are also on option. Buy a bird from a local organic farmer who lets chickens live natural lives (until they are killed, of course). If that isn’t available, MarketWatch has an extensive write-up and chart spelling out the exact differences between animal product labels, such as the difference between "Animal Welfare Approved" and “American Humane Certified.”
Just because the chicken industry won’t clean up their act doesn’t mean you can’t. "Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences," said geneticist and environmental activist David Suzuki. "It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles." That includes our notions about America's favorite meat.
Originally Posted: alternet.org